This Week in Sound: The Small Club of Species That Learns Songs

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the June 6, 2023, issue of the weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound. This Week in Sound is the best way I’ve found to process material I come across. Your support provides resources and encouragement. Most issues are free. A weekly annotated ambient-music mixtape is for paid subscribers. Thanks.

▰ FLIGHT CLUB: “[A] growing body of research is showing that the affinity human musicians feel toward birdsong has a strong scientific basis. Scientists are understanding more about avian species’ ability to learn, interpret and produce songs much like our own.” One researcher (Hollis Taylor, a violinist and an ornithologist) “has observed what appear to be warm-up sessions, rehearsals and singing contests. Other than humans, there’s only a ‘small club’ of species with an observed capacity to learn songs and vocal patterns.” And mysteries remain: “If birdsong’s main purpose in some species is for males to attract females, then why do some females also sing? ‘Female song actually arose very early in songbird evolution,’ he said. ‘In species where females don’t sing, it’s because they’ve lost the ability to sing rather than it being gained.’ This indicates that it may have once been evolutionarily beneficial for females to sing — and scientists can’t say why.” (Read at with a gift link.)

▰ HELL’S BELLS: “Yes, the harvested audio will be imported onto a computer and deepened, sculpted, flayed, and spliced until it fits the unforgiving grim-dark horrors of Sanctuary, but Blizzard still takes a distinctly classical approach to the aural aesthetics of Diablo IV, one that resembles the practical Hollywood filmmaking of the 1950s and ’60s. The marauding demons are programmed with dangling bike chains, molten candle wax, and crushed fruits and vegetables, all of which is captured tangibly, without resorting to the freeware clips bobbing around the internet.” All about the sounds of the new video game.

▰ AMPED UP: “He describes Sonic Check as ‘rapid-development tool’ that uses machine learning AI ‘trained with real market research’ to give the user a ‘measurement’ of a sound. It looks at how consumers responded to similar sounds in the past and provides a prediction of how a sound will be received by consumers. … Once users upload a sound, the AI analyses its performance in relation to ‘brand fit’, memorability, and ‘authenticity’.” —Abbey Bamford interviews sonic branding agency Amp CEO Michele Arnese about Sonic Hub, “which seeks to simplify the sonic branding process for designers and brands using four different AI technologies.” Sonic Check is one of its tools. The others are Sonic Radar (which provides “insights on a brand’s use of sounds across its digital channels, using music AI tagging technology ‘trained by experts to categorise music’”) and Sonic Space (which “uses generative AI to create new music out of existing music, acting as a ‘sonic repository’”). More at

▰ QUICK NOTES: ▰ This Is What It Sounds Like: The Shriek of the Week is the “stock dove,” which, we’re told, sounds like a normal dove’s “coo” — but “in reverse” (“Imagine the bird is scratching a record like a DJ, swiping it backwards and forwards”). ▰ Drop the Mic: Micah Loewinger of On the Media speaks to Dan Charnas, author of Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, about “how music copyright law suppresses the artistic voices of hip hop producers.” (Thanks, Rich Pettus!) ▰ Light Brigade:Behind the scenes with the Imagineers who developed the sound for the TRON Lightcycle / Run ride at Walt Disney World. ▰ Songs About Buildings: Learn all about new Finnish acoustic standards for “acoustic environments in buildings.” ▰ Grand Scale: Composer-developer Giorgio Sancristoforo’s new software is a synthesizer with 1,000 oscillators. ▰ Sized Up: How MassiveMusic Berlin updated the sonic logo of the German bank Sparkasse. ▰ Voice Over: The voices of Shaquille O’Neal, Melissa McCarthy, and Samuel L. Jackson are leaving Amazon Alexa.

▰ APPLE DROP: There was a lot of Apple news this week, and in it quite a bit of audio, such that it gets its own section this week: Coming in Apple tvOS 17 is Enhance Dialogue (“which lets users more clearly hear what is being said over effects, action, and music in a move or a TV show” — thanks, Bruce Levenstein!) ▰ The new VR goggles from Apple involve “audio ray tracing”; here’s a primer: (“It would make it seem like … sounds are coming from your room in a particular place.) ▰ “There’s a new Adaptive Audio feature for the AirPods that combines Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation to dynamically match the conditions of the environment that you’re in.” ▰ USB-C microphones to be supported by iPads. ▰ Apple Music adds crossfading, among other features. ▰ “Users can now simply say ‘Siri’ instead of ‘Hey ‌Siri‌,’ and ‌Siri‌ will understand follow-up commands that do not include the trigger word.” ▰ “Personal Voice is designed to allow you to use artificial intelligence to create a replica of your voice.” ▰ Added to iMessage: “automatic transcriptions for voice messages.” ▰ FaceTime will have “Live Voicemail with voice-to-text transcription before answering; transcription is handled on device.” ▰ “AirPlay‌ can learn how and when you listen to certain content, for example by displaying a nearby AirPlay-supporting speaker to select depending which room you’re in.”

Listening Back to American Graffiti

I wrote about Walter Murch’s legacy and worldizing for JSTOR Daily

I wrote for the daily publication of about Walter Murch and the sonic aspects of George Lucas’ American Graffiti in advance of the movie’s 50th anniversary, which comes ’round this coming August. (This article was published on Tuesday, at, a day after Pitchfork published my review of Oval’s superb new album, Romantiq — so, it’s been a pretty fun week.) 

One great thing about writing for JSTOR is that any articles I cite are automatically de-paywalled, and this slate of articles (listed at the bottom of the piece) includes an excellent interview Michael Jarrett did with Murch many years ago. My editor at JSTOR even put together a Spotify playlist of tracks from the movie, though of course those versions don’t include the spatial processing that Murch employed.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my article, which is titled “The Sonic Triumph of American Graffiti”:

Almost a half century ago, American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas, hit the big screen. Sandwiched between the quiet THX 1138 (1971) and the blockbuster Star Wars (1977), Lucas’s second feature peered back a decade earlier, taking place at the tail end of the summer of 1962. The movie is filled with images of an era already experienced as bygone — roller-skating diner waitresses, souped-up jalopies cruising the streets — and, just as critically, with its sounds. The latter were accomplished thanks largely to Walter Murch (“Sound Montage and Re-recording,” the opening credits state opaquely), who helped revolutionize the role of sound in film. Age thirty at the time of its release, Murch had just completed similar work on The Godfather, directed by American Graffiti producer Francis Ford Coppola, and would soon move on to Coppola’s The Conversation. Born and raised in New York City, Murch fell in with the California movie mavericks during graduate school at USC.

Nearly twenty years after American Graffiti’s release, literary critic Fredric Jameson, in 1991, singled it out as a central example of what he termed “nostalgia films,” citing it as nothing less than the “inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse.” The movie’s fiftieth anniversary — this August — provides an opportunity to look back, just as Lucas’s movie itself did.

You can read the full article (no paywall) at

One thing I didn’t get into in the JSTOR article is the difference between “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” sound. Something I wrestle with when writing about concepts is how to best employ the language that has developed to encapsulate those concepts. Sometimes it helps to just write about the concepts, because language intended to clarify can, in fact, obfuscate. I felt that focusing on “worldizing” (see the article for an explanation), a word that is central to my piece, let me do just that: focus. Now I can back up a bit and note that “diegetic” sound is, in essence, sound that happens as if it was emitted on or just off-screen, whereas “non-diegetic” sound is sound that is apart from what happens on-screen. Movie (and television) sound is often at its best when the difference between the “diegetic” sound and the “non-diegetic” sound is blurred. This is the case throughout American Graffiti when the editor moves between a Platonic ideal of a song (pristine as a movie theater or living room TV might allow) and the way that song would sound in the context of the scene where it is playing, say on an AM radio just as Ron Howard’s Steve Bolander and Cindy Williams’ Laurie Henderson are about to make out. 

One gauge of how remarkable the role of sound was in the film is how unprepared film criticism was, at the time, to note let alone analyze its sonic components. Michael Dempsey’s review in Film Quarterly at the time barely mentions the music, except as part of the overall setting.

And three more notes, not related to sound:

  1. There is so much Star Wars (or proto–Star Wars) in American Graffiti, the film George Lucas completed just prior to Star Wars (or what we now call Star Wars: A New Hope). In particular, there is a scene with Williams’ Henderson sitting next to Harrison Ford where their bickering (goody two-shoes versus rake) is a blueprint for what would constitute the relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo. And such influence would continue for decades. There’s a moment between Paul Le Mat’s John Milner and Mackenzie Phillips’ Carol when Milner gives Carol the exact sort of thing that, in the TV series The Mandalorian, Din Djarin gives Grogu (colloquially “Baby Yoda”). Also, the scene I mention in the article where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt Henderson sabotages a police car has been replicated in Star Wars.
  2. While I identified many of the actors from the film in the JSTOR article, I couldn’t find a natural way to note that the idealized blonde woman in the Thunderbird is, in fact, Suzanne Somers. Like so many actors in the film, she went on to fame, but unlike many there was nothing retro about where she was headed, nor did the character she play in the film really connect with the wonderfully goofy Chrissy Snow she would, for lack of a better word, embody on the sitcom Three’s Company. But that is her.
  3. To this day, I experience cognitive dissonance when I look at the above poster that the late Mort Drucker drew for the film because, unlike his work in Mad, it’s completely un-ironic. It’s not a parody. It’s straightforward, though his wit is still evident. 

Sorry those last few notes are off-topic, sound-wise, but they’re fun and I wanted to share them. As with so much writing, the material that didn’t make the published article was longer than the article itself.

Right Movie, Wrong Time

A misfire with Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert

A bleak industrial landscape, with a dreary road and smokestacks

A couple nights ago, I wanted something to watch. The day’s client work was over, and I had filed one freelance piece, with a few others in appropriate phases of development. There’s a short story I’ve been trying to tie up, and I hit pause on that. I wanted someone else’s story — preferably at the atmospheric end of the narrative spectrum — in my head and in the living room. 

I’ve been slowly re-reading Fahrenheit 451 lately (in between three others books, already one more than my usual for fiction: Anya Ow’s admirably unadorned Ion Curtain, Hiron Ennes’ deep purple Leech, and Sayaka Murata’s casually unsettling Life Ceremony — all published in 2022). Ray Bradbury’s classic, which turns 70 this year, has made me quite self-conscious about the intersection of personal technology and media — both about the insulating capacity of audiobooks (Bradbury calls in-ear devices “Seashells,” and I now wonder if they informed the name of the “Starfish” at the end of Jenifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad), and about how filmed entertainment appearing on large screens in one’s home can become a matter of domestic decoration and artificial environment. 

All that in mind, I selected Red Desert (1964) by Michelangelo Antonioni, whom I know mostly from Blow-up, which was Antonioni’s subsequent film, released two years after Red Desert. His Blow-up is of particular interest because it inspired Blow-out (1981)Brian De Palma’s homage, which swapped the original’s emphasis on photography for audio recording, and thus is up there with The Conversation as a key entry in the Sound Studies Film Festival. Red Desert is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

A woman and child approach a tiny white car on which are two megaphones. A man is exiting the car.

The opening is all bleak industrial landscape (totally my jam), but it’s also so rich with field recordings of the zone that I couldn’t really lose myself in it; I was consumed, instead, by the quietly insistent background noise. Then the credits, set to a female vocal that seemed to emulate the wavering tonality of the Theremin, announced the work of not one but two composers (Giovanni Fusco as well as, for “musica elettronica,” Vittorio Gelmetti). And then a tiny car pulled up, weighed down by two comically oversized megaphones, and I had to acknowledge that this movie was not going to be the engrossing evening distraction that I’d hoped for. It felt more like a research magnet, a sonic rabbit hole. Homework. I’ll watch it again some other time in the appropriate mood. Then I’ll report back.

Positive Influence

This is the full text of my review, from the March 2023 issue of The Wire, of Stand By for Failure: A Negativland Documentary, directed by Ryan Worsley:

This is a photo from 1981 of the three founding members of the band Negativland, from left to right: David Wills, Mark Hosler, and Richard Lyons

If you know anything about Negativland, then you’ll giggle when you see the FBI warning about copyright infringement at the start of Stand By For Failure, Ryan Worsley’s new documentary film about the band. Few artists have logged as many hours on the battlefield of fair use, let alone questioned as persistently the associated legal constraints around intellectual property, as Negativland, whose sonic, visual and performance appropriations and parodies have challenged eyeballs, eardrums and moral standards alike since the late 1970s. The FBI insignia here feels less like a pro forma admonition, and more like evidence from an active crime scene. And even if you know nothing about Negativland – members of the band debate the extent of their fame in the film – you’ll still have an immediate sense something is up. The FBI warning label is depicted in a sickly green, vibrating as it gets layered below rapidly cycling footage.

Something most definitely is up. Worsley directs her documentary by embracing Negativland’s own “helter stupid” collage techniques. Much of the film layers eviscerated visuals into a vaudevillian media kaleidoscope. Some of this material is drawn from the band’s own work, while other portions simulate the Negativland plunder-drunk ethos, drawing from the group’s favourite resources, such as televangelism, advertising and TV news.

No zone is safe, not even the home that David Wills shared with his mother. We first meet him as a precocious boy when he starts broadcasting his recitation of the weather report in 1959. As he matures, so does home technology. Soon he’s filming and, later, using video recorders to capture daily life. Worsley frequently reproduces segments of Wills’s home movies in split-screen. The message is clear: even the most mundane aspects of human existence are technologically mediated and surveilled – and thus raw material for the madcap minds of Negativland.

Wills befriends other tinkerers and Negativland is born. We see gleeful Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons self-release the group’s first record in 1980. Later member Don Joyce brings a dramaturg’s clarity to their self-awareness. The longtime KPFA DJ says Negativland doesn’t merely copy existing material; their parodic use is antithetical to its initial purpose.

Some sourced interview footage is by William Davenport, who directed an earlier documentary, Media About Media About Media: The Negativland Story. Much is from the members themselves, often filming each other filming something. In one of the film’s many touching moments we see Wills record an emaciated Lyons, who is dying in bed.

Stand By for Failure proceeds chronologically but the antic presentation may confuse those lacking foreknowledge. The story of how Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid” got associated with a murder was a hoax they themselves perpetrated, a point touched on in a manner that could be misunderstood. A U2 parody that nearly cost them everything culminated with Negativland interviewing The Edge – which, again, may elude some viewers. Confusion, of course, comes with the territory. Jon Leidecker aka Wobbly, the group’s most recent member, talks about how when he first heard Negativland at age 15, he thought he had tuned into three radio stations simultaneously.

If you know nothing about Negativland, you may still be confused at the film’s end, but you’ll have another kind of knowledge. Worsley successfully depicts the mix of buffoonery and consciousness-raising that define Negativland. To have told the story straight would have produced the worst sort of parody: unintentional.

Sound Ledger¹ (FAA, Wilhelm, Plants)

Audio culture by the numbers

$19,000,000: Amount, in $US, awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to 14 universities to reduce aviation noise

39: Length, in seconds, of the original (and newly rediscovered) recording session that yielded the famed “Wilhelm scream”

40: Average number of “clicks” emitted by “stressed” plants over the course of an hour

. . .

¹Footnotes: FAA: Wilhelm: (via John Kannenberg). Plants: