Fins and flutes: how music can help us communicate with dolphins

Flautist Ms Sally Walker (left) alongside Professor Kim Cunio (right) on board the ‘Imagine’ Eco Cruises boat in December 2021. Photo: Dr Jose De Dona

The universal language of music could serve as a gateway to communicate with dolphins and potentially open doors to learn more about the naturally curious creatures, according to researchers from the Australian National University (ANU).

An ANU-led experiment conducted in Port Stephens, NSW, aboard the Imagine Eco Cruises boat in December 2021 reveals that dolphins are attracted to the high frequencies of several instruments, including the flute, piccolo and Indian recorder in wood.

The high-pitched songs also seemed to attract dolphins.

Flutist Sally Walker, of the ANU School of Music, said “a few minutes” after playing the flute, a pod of bottlenose dolphins approached the boat.

“A dolphin glided right under me at the same speed as the boat, and the rest of the pod danced around it,” Walker said.

“The high frequencies and the particular interval distances between the notes seemed to attract the dolphins and excite them, and staff on the Imagine boat said we saw unusually high numbers of dolphins both in harbor and at sea. ”

Dolphin sounds were recorded using an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, and can be heard here.

Dolphin expert Dr Olivia De Bergerac, who is part of the pilot study, has studied the interaction between dolphins and humans for more than 25 years, but says little is known about how the dolphins respond and react to live music.

“Dolphins live in a world of sound; they communicate with each other by sending sound which is a hologram of information reflected in their melon – a mass of fatty tissue found in their forehead – so I know that we humans can communicate with dolphins through music,” said said Dr. De Bergerac.

“Dolphins are very intelligent creatures and can sense our thoughts, feelings, state of mind and send us sounds to heal us,” added Professor Kim Cunio, Director of the ANU School of Music. .

“The effect of listening to water teeming with life through a hydrophone is quite exciting. Sound travels through water in a very different way to air, especially low frequencies, but dolphin frequencies are very high. This means that we don’t easily hear the nuance in their appeals.

“As such, having the flute, piccolo and a coloratura voice was really important because they are among the highest instruments we have and are way above our speech.”

A video in which dolphins can be seen approaching the boat and interacting with the music can be viewed here.

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