This Week in Sound: Swinton, Earworms, Spurious Noise

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the January 3, 2022, 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.

As Christian Carrière noted to me in an email, there are an increasing number of films coming out in which audio is a driving part of the narrative. Upcoming are both La Boîte Noire, from director Yann Gozlan, which centers on an airline black box analyst, and Memoria, the new Tilda Swinton film, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in which a woman visiting a foreign country becomes fascinated by a strange sound.

La Boîte Noire:

I am excited to see both these movies (Memoria will be a bit difficult, as apparently it will be viewable only in theaters, not just upon release, but forever), but in the end I remain even more interested in the role sound plays in film in general than I am in the occasional film (like Berberian Sound Studio or Sound of Metal), where it is the focus of attention. Via the “Sounding Out!” blog, there’s a great new interview with Budhaditya Chattopadhyay (author of Between the Headphones and The Auditory Setting: Environmental Sounds in Film and Media Arts) on how even this many decades after Walter Murch’s groundbreaking work in The Godfather, American Graffiti, and The Conversation, sound remains underutilized in film.

According to David Silbersweig, Harvard psychology professor, there is an evolutionary history to the phenomenon of the earworm: “[M]usic was used together with rhyming before the written word in many cultures to help people remember oral histories. Our brains evolved to remember these associations and these snippets.” The word dates back to 1979, coined by Cornelius Eckert from the German term “Ohrwurm,” or “musical itch.” (Via subtopes.)

The excellent blog, by J.B. Crawford, started the year with a look back at the telephone. Particularly interesting, as Jason Wehmhoener pointed out (we were both alerted to the piece by our friend Tom Norris), is the role played by the selection of frequencies for command tones, like touching a button: “The consistent 200 Hz separation meant that certain tones were subject to harmonics and other intermodulation products from other tones, requiring high signal quality for reliable decoding. That wasn’t much of a problem on toll circuits which were already maintained to a high standard, but local loops were routinely expected to work despite very poor quality, and there was a huge variety of different equipment in use on local loops, some of which was very old and easily picked up spurious noise.” The post is an excellent deep dive.

The New York Times closed out the year with a list of 41 “debates” that defined 2021, among them the Havana syndrome, which “started afflicting American diplomats in Cuba in 2016, after embassy workers reported hearing loud buzzing noises.”

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