Whalesongs Beneath the Surface

"Songs of the Humpback Whale," Capitol Records, $2.99 at the Coop.

THEY LAUGHED when I bought a recording of humpback whales' songs. I laughed when I played it. At first I thought trucks were screeching their brakes outside, but then I saw that the needle was on the record. They told me it would be an emotional experience-the zoologist who recorded the songs said he'd seen people who listened to them for the first time actually cry because they were so moved. I laughed-I'd been rooked on a Coop $2.99 special.

A rapidly-dying breed of whale sang these "songs" in the Athlantic off Bermuda. Some of the sounds are laughably unmusical-the closest description might be of a constipated cow in pain. Others simulate underwater noises: burbling and the purring of motors. And there are a few beautiful echoing calls-like those chosen for back-up on Judy Collins' latest album-that send chills down your spine.

None of the sounds are songs in the melodious sense that one would expect. The album might be better entitled Calls of the Humpback Whale, for they are calls as birds' songs are calls.

The amazing thing is that the promotional build-up for the record ends up being true once you've listened to it long enough. This cacophony of calls becomes something truly beautiful and soothing. It's not exactly the record you'd sit down and listen to with your parents while sipping after-dinner brandy-unless they're part of the new breed of over-30 freaks. But as a background to whatever you're doing or any mental trauma you're going through, whales are magnificent companions. There they are, singing to one another and a zoologist's hydrophones, telling you things are really fine under water, if not above.

THE RECORD presents many subtleties of whale song, starting out on solos, moving on to duets and then a very long trio. The first side begins with a solo, which bears a strong resemblance for the first few minutes to a badly squeaking door. During the song, which the record jacket assures us has not been speeded up or slowed down, there are some long high creaks. Band two plays these calls at one-quarter speed, showing the musical subtleties of a long high creak.

Although all this sounds exceptionally unexciting, the noises grow on you very quickly. Side two, entitled "There Whale Trip" (get it?), was recorded too close to the ocean's surface so there is a constant rush of water in the background. "After a few moments of listening." the blurb on the jacket says, "you will learn to hear much as a whale probably does, ignoring the background noises and focusing on the whale songs." And once again, the blurb is right. There you are, thinking as a whale does, splashing along just under the surface. You may soon drive your roommates mad by screeching through the halls, sounding more like an elephant in a Tarzan movie than a humpback whale. But that point comes weeks after the first listening.

And after you're thoroughly hooked on this music, you'll start hearing it everywhere. Take me, for instance. When I hear the screech of a narrowly-averted three-car collision. no longer do I flinch. I just think that someone. somewhere, is playing Songs of the Humpback whale.