This Week in Sound: Loud Birds and Quiet Times

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the May 12, 2020, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

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“Although our perception might be that they’re singing louder, it’s actually likely in places that are typically noisy that they’re singing more quietly than normal.” Sue Anne Zollinger tells us birds aren’t louder than usual, clarifying what a lot of people are experiencing during widespread shelter-in-place. Zollinger is an ornithologist at Manchester Metropolitan University.

A new educational app, Diya, “monitors the child as they read, using Google’s speech recognition technology to spot mistakes and places where they are having trouble.”

“I always thought field recording was just an audio snapshot, really. Now, taking the audio snapshot and adapting it to our present moment – who knew our times [would] so drastically [change] in a matter of two weeks. And my god, all of these field recordings that we’ve all been doing for the past 20-30 years, especially as the hand-held recorders got more and more accessible for the general public – I used to think of it all as, What are we going to do with all this stuff? It’s just trash, everybody’s just recording field recordings. I’d always roll my eyes. Now I’m like, You’re such an idiot. Thank god everybody was recording our world because it’s gone.” Many thanks to Jason Richardson for having brought this observation from the awesome Maria Chavez to my attention.

▰ A Florida man is suing another for using a “sonic weapon” again him and his family: “The petition describes the noise as ‘continual pinging’ and argues the noise is known to cause hearing loss and tinnitus.”

“A federal judge has refused to dismiss a class-action complaint alleging Google’s voice-activated Assistant violates users’ privacy,” writes Wendy Davis at MediaPost of a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose. A Reuters piece on the same topic can be read to cast the results differently, with the title “Google beats most claims in voice assistant privacy lawsuit.” The Reuters piece does note the plaintiffs have “the opportunity to amend the complaint.” Davis arguably makes the judgment more clear: “Freeman dismissed several other claims in the complaint, but without prejudice — meaning that the users can attempt to reformulate them.”

“Banks and the companies that provide their voice biometrics make bold claims for the ability to distinguish individuals’ voices. Hundreds of speech characteristics are analysed, from accent and speed to physical characteristics of vocal chords.” That’s Ed Jefferson describing the rise of voice as a form of password. The idea of names having magic power is a common trope. I happen to be reading the first book in Jim Butcher’s series The Dresden Files, Storm Front, and figured I’d share this bit from it for comparison: “There are two parts of magic you have to understand to catch a faery. One of them is the concept of true names. Everything in the whole world has its own name. Names are unique sounds and cadences of words that are attached to one specific individual sort of like a kind of theme music. If you know something’s name, you can associate yourself with it in a magical sense, almost in the same way a wizard can reach out and touch someone if he possesses a lock of their hair, or fingernail clippings, or blood. If you know something’s name, you can create a magical link to it, just as you can call someone up and talk to them if you know their phone number. Just knowing the name isn’t good enough, though: You have to know exactly how to say it. Ask two John Franklin Smiths to say their names for you, and you’ll get subtle differences in tone and pronunciation, each one unique to its owner. Wizards tend to collect names of creatures, spirits, and people like some kind of huge Rolodex. You never know when it will come in handy.”

“A Supreme Court argument was briefly interrupted Wednesday by the sound of what appeared to be a toilet flushing.”

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▰ A welcome green shoot of civilization: just learned that a local shop on the other side of the park will hand-deliver sheet music. Having sheet music delivered by hand from a locally owned business while the city is under shelter-in-place guidelines does make me feel like I am living in a Brian Wood comic.

▰ Today’s definition of optimism: Stumbling on a generative modular-synth ambient video on YouTube and observing as muscle memory immediately sets it to loop, even though it’s three hours long.

▰ First Tony Allen, then Florian Schneider, then Little Richard. The Earth is losing its rhythms. It’s off its axis. (Side note: It feels odd how few obituaries for Little Richard mention the Magic School Bus theme.)

▰ RIP, Richard Sala. His was one of the first comics I edited for Pulse!, the Tower Records music magazine, back in the early 1990s. I was an enormous admirer, and I learned a lot from him.

▰ Body: sheltering-in-place. Mind: woodshedding.

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