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ACTIVITY: Harmonizing with Humpbacks

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:

The activity below draws from the content in the page Information Processing: Whale CommunicationRelated information on sound waves can be found in another topic, The Patterns to Transfer Information

<p>Fig. 1. What are whales trying to communicate in their songs?</p>


Animals communicate using sound (Fig.1).


How can sound be used to communicate?

Guiding Questions:

  1. How do humans communicate?
  2. How do whales communicate?
  3. How is sound useful for communication?
  4. What are other modes of communication? 


In this activity, you will analyze songs to investigate how people use music to communicate. Then, construct a diagram and create your own lyrics for real whale songs.


  • Student worksheet and teacher guide (attached below):
  • Method to play music
  • Colored Pencils

Teacher Recommendations:



  1. Follow along on your worksheet to learn about whale communication!
  2. Read the background reading below:

    Background Reading

    Communication is the process of sending a signal to an individual or receiver and then having the receiver use that information to respond. An organism’s ability to sense and respond to its environment enhances its chance of surviving and reproducing. Communication can occur through visual, touch, and smell. Different organisms have an array of sensory functions that can range from simple to complicated. The most effective means of communication in water is sound. Sound travels in waves with characteristic features of amplitude and frequency. Sound also has both volume and pitch.

    • <p>Fig. 2. Sound spectrogram shows the range of frequencies in a humpback whale song.</p>Volume is seen as an increase in amplitude of the sound wave. So, the louder a sound, the higher the amplitude will be.
    • Pitch is seen as a change in the frequency of the sound wave. So, the higher-pitched a sound (such as a squeak), the higher the frequency and the closer the waves will be to each other.

    A sound graph, or spectrogram, is used by scientists to map out the sound waves that they are hearing (Fig. 2). We can create simpler versions of a sound graph by simply listening to the sound around us and making note of changes in pitch over time (Fig. 3).

    <p>Fig. 3. A simple spectrogram might still provide us information of the noises around us. This could be an example of a car passing.</p><br />

    Whale Song Activity Vocabulary

    • Amplitude: the measure (in decibels) of the amount of energy in a sound wave; determines loudness of the sound
    • Frequency: the number of sound waves that pass a point each second
    • Pitch: the highness or lowness of sound determined by frequency vibrations
    • Volume: quantity or power of sound; degree of loudness.
  1. Think about one of your favorite songs:
    1. Without the words, how does the music of this song make you feel? 
    2. What elements of the music communicate this feeling?
  2. Humpback whales also use sound to communicate, but in a way humans don't fully understand. Because we don't understand whale songs, scientists graph them in order to find patterns in their songs and interpret the information. Listen to some sample humpback whale songs from Hawai'i here or from
  4. Using the background reading and create your own sound graph, or spectrogram, with each of these songs.
  5. How does your spectrogram reflect your initial thoughts on the songs? Does it look like how you felt or what was being communicated?
  1. Now,
  2. Create spectrograms of these whale songs on the worksheet below.

Activity Questions:

  1. Who is singing in these audio clips?
  2. Where and how do the whales sing?
  3. What sort of tools to researchers use to understand and study whale songs?
  4. What are some of the human impacts on whale songs?
  5. Why do scientists think the whales sing?
  6. Why do YOU think the whales sing? What are they saying?
  7. Answer these questions in the activity sheet below. Follow the instructions to answer the questions by writing your own lyrics to the whale song. 



Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.