Cetacean citations
: hythmic variability in the composition and recomposition of humpback whale song

  • Alexander Mitchell South

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


In this interdisciplinary thesis I attend to the rhythmic variability of the phrases whose repetition is such a distinctive feature of humpback whale song, listening and responding as bioacoustician, musician, and zoömusicologist. I developed methods to visualize and measure individual distinctiveness and rhythmic precision in shared song phrases, and assessed thirteen hours of humpback song from ten singers, collected off Mo’orea, French Polynesia, September-November 2019. Using multiple regression and multivariate distance techniques, I found that individual singers sing shared phrases with their own individually distinctive rhythms but with equal levels of rhythmic precision, across a wide range of phrase variants. As a musician I recomposed with transcriptions and recordings of humpback song phrases, the ‘cetacean citations’ of my title, producing a portfolio of six works in collaboration with other musicians. In a reflective zoömusicological analysis of my compositional processes, I examined how composers might avoid both an ‘anthropodenial’ that fails to recognize the similarities between humans and other animals, and a ‘naïve anthropomorphism’ that fails to recognize the differences. Further, I challenged the presumption that there are no ethical questions involved in the musical use of other-than-human audio recordings via an analysis of their inevitable ‘objectification’ in contemporary composition. Drawing on Adorno’s critique of instrumental rationality and Plumwood’s critique of anthropocentrism, I elaborated the concept of an aesthetic rationality that treats other-than-human sounds with respect, through a set of strategies for composers to produce a non-anthropocentric multispecies music that neither enacts nor embodies human exceptionalism. Finally, I proposed the notion of ‘multispecies heterophony’ to describe the overlapping nonhierarchical sounding of difference. This compositional form was jointly inspired by the ‘asynchronous chorus’ of the collective singing of humpback whales, and the human dynamics of large group improvisation; I suggest that it offers a promising musical model for ecological thinking.
Date of Award12 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
  • Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
SupervisorLuke Edward Rendell (Supervisor), Ellen Clare Garland (Supervisor) & Emily Doolittle (Supervisor)


  • Humpback whale song
  • Bioacoustics
  • Rhythm
  • Musical composition
  • Ecomusicology
  • Zoomusicology
  • Anthropocentrism
  • Multispecies heterophony

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