Katy Payne

Biologist Katy Payne in October 2009. Once she saw spectograms of humpback whale calls, she says, she began to notice their musical structure -- what looked like melodies and rhythms.

/ OneBeat Virtual
Master Artist


Ithaca, United States

In 1959 Katy Payne received a Cornell BA in music (with honors) and biology: since then her professional work and contributions have all stemmed from original discoveries at the intersection of these fields.  Humpback whales sing long songs that change extensively, progressively, and rapidly with time – an example of non-human cultural evolution with endlessly fascinating details. Katy’s discovery of song-changing led to 15 years of recording and examining whale songs from the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: many mysteries are still unresolved.  But she changed direction in 1984 when she, with E M Thomas and W.R. Langbauer, discovered that elephants make powerful, low-frequency calls some of which are infrasonic and travel long distances. That finding led to two decades of field work in Africa focused on elephants’ acoustic communication. In 2004 Katy founded the Elephant Listening Project, in the Bioacoustics Research Program in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for purposes of research and conservation.

Upon retiring from the Lab in 2006, Katy took up violin-building, as a student of the Ithaca luthier Dylan Race.

Funding for all Katy Payne’s recognized work came from grants — from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society (and its precursor the New York Zoological Society), the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Conservation International, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare — and from book writing (Silent Thunder: in the Presence of Elephants (Simon & Schuster, 1998.) Along the way Katy received several honors and awards.  More importantly, recognition of her findings has brought increased attention to the extraordinary and only half- understood animals whose wonderful calls and songs fill the forests, savannas and oceans.