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We played music for belugas; one stayed close the whole time

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Published on Dec 25, 2014

(Direct URL: http://j.smad.info) If you take live or recorded music to cetaceans, they will appreciate it. Check in with aquarium staff before you start, and whenever different staff arrive. Most staff were very welcoming, and the only questions arose sometimes when new staff came to the area, who were not sure what was happening.

We played three YouTube videos with music, by pressing the bottom of the laptop against the aquarium window, so sound carried through the plexiglass, where the belugas could hear it in the water, and see the video on the laptop screen. The videos we showed are inset in the lower left corner so you can see them too, and they are at http://smad.info:

0:00-2:10 Vivaldi's Piccolo Concerto in C, with Adriana Lesková, directed by Josef Vondráček.
2:40-11:00 Saxophone tunes which Kevin McMahon played for the same whales.
1:27-15:00 Bach's "Little" Fugue in G Minor on organ, performed by Stephen Malinowski.

These videos, other music of interest to cetaceans, and animal-computer interfaces are at http://smad.info. We recorded on a Kindle Fire HD 6 clamped to a tripod. We inserted the inset pictures in the lower left corner with the free VSDC video editor.

One beluga stayed at the window virtually the whole time the music was playing, which is rare for him. Belugas have more sophisticated sound abilities than any human, and to all appearances he was listening closely, watching the screen.

Several times he released small bubbles, showing he was vocalizing something to us or to the other belugas (at 0:08, 0:13, 1:50, 1:58, 2:23, 4:53, 5:39, 5:46, 10:07, 12:49). These are too small to be breaths, which he does at the surface. He often flattened his head against the glass. His echolocation sounds come through the melon on his forehead, so he may have been trying to send sounds through the glass. He receives sounds through his jaw, so pressing his mouth to the glass would let him hear the sounds from the computer better.

The first two videos show the musicians and their instruments, piccolo flute, violins, conductor, and saxophone. The third video shows visual symbols of the organ's pitch and timing (youtube.com/watch?v=ddbxFi3-UO4). He may never have heard organ music and initially floated above the laptop, then went down and looked more closely.

The middle video, played by Kevin McMahon, includes:
In the Mood, popularized by Glenn Miller
Take Five by Paul Desmond, popularized by Dave Brubeck
Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen + Yip Harburg
Choo Choo Ch'Boogie by Horton, Darling & Gabler, popularized by Louis Jordan
Hokey Pokey (called Hokey Cokey in UK)

You can play music from a laptop or tablet. You can press it against the glass in exhibits, so it carries through into the water. In the wild you'd need an underwater speaker. If you make a video of cetaceans enjoying music you play for them, put a link below in the comments.

The other two belugas in the tank swam nearby, which is fairly common; you can see them in the background. They could hear but did not come close to see. On a previous day one had stayed quite near during some Mariachi music.

We had previously down-loaded music and videos (using vidconv.net) to the laptop, since the aquarium had no public WiFi to connect with the internet.

At 9:36 you can see the beluga popping open his jaw to deter children from tapping on his window. The Vivaldi stops early, because we accidentally only downloaded the first part.

It was a privilege to bring these cetaceans something which earned such intent listening. They would certainly respond to more of these tunes. Would they respond to cello? Ragas from India? Chants by Buddhist or Catholic monks? Complex rhythms of international dance? Chinese or Western operas?

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