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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Quote of the Week: Meep vs Beep

A brief letter in the New York Times this morning tackles two recent popular subjects at once: (1) the characterization of the “beep” as a quintessentially human-constructed sound and (2) the proper onomatopoeia for what the Road Runner says in the classic Warner Bros. cartoons:

While the real roadrunner doesn’t beep like its cartoon counterpart, contrary to Virginia Heffernan’s column (“Beep!”), there is an animal that beeps: the human. Since the inception of the Warner Brothers Road Runner more than 60 years ago, its “beep beep”(some think it’s “meep meep”) has been supplied by human voices, the Looney Tunes artist Paul Julian’s being the first. BILL STOLLER Pleasantville, N.Y.

Stoller’s letter, while fully correct, shows Heffernan to still be half-correct. Her original point wasn’t solely that the “beep” sound is constructed by humans (the implication being that it is machine-made), but that it bears the intrinsic mark of human-made-ness. The latter point remains factually accurate even if the Road Runner’s trademark sound is recorded by a guy with a microphone and a copyrighted audio style manual in a studio somewhere in Hollywood.

The correction makes me wonder about animal sounds in general. I try to keep an eye on developments in bioacoustics, and am wondering if there’s evidence of animals that employ objects as tools to make sounds — for example, whether the woodpecker’s pecking (which requires a solid object) has a meaning between woodpeckers, or between woodpeckers and the animals that treat them as prey.

As for “meep” vs “beep,” I’ve always figured that “meep” sounds less aggressive than “beep,” which is why it seems, to many people, to be more tonally accurate.

Heffernan’s story: nytimes.com. Stoller’s letter: nytimes.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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