William Weir

Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

Some More Bird Song Science

In sounds of nature on January 23, 2011 at 8:26 pm

So this study is about two years old, but it hasn’t gotten any less fascinating since. And since I recently had posts on metronomes and bird song, this one nicely ties the two together.

Researchers at MIT found that by cooling a part of a zebra finch’s brain caused the bird to slow its singing. This brain region, the high vocal center (or HVC) is where the bird’s internal metronome resides. The study also shed some light on the brain mechanics of bird song. Says reseacher Michale Fee:

It seems to look a lot like a music box. You have a drum that rotates and controls the timing. The drum has little bumps all over it. If you rotate the drum more slowly, you get the same notes but they come out more slowly.

And where goes the zebra finch brain goes (possibly) the human brain. Besides unlocking mysteries of bird song, the researchers say the findings could reveal some of the secrets behind humans’ capacity for speech and music.

The Sounds of Ice

In sound installations on January 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Ice harps! Ice chimes! Ice vibes!

Here in the Northeast, where we’re bracing more single-digit temps, ice is everywhere. And if you can’t escape the ice, I always say, you might as well listen to it in the form of elaborately sculpted musical instruments. The above clip features the ice instruments of Norwegian composer Terje Isungset who’s been building them since 1999. Fascinatingly, though I guess not surprisingly, the instruments always sound different, dependent upon the weather.

I first saw this on the always interesting Everyday Listening, which has been working overtime on the ice-sound front. It also has this great clip of an sound installation that processes the audio of melting ice. It’s by Jonathon Kirk and Lee Weisert:

The Evolution of the City Bird’s Song

In Uncategorized on January 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm

This is interesting – New Scientist has a story about how city-dwelling birds have evolved a different way of singing, so that they can be heard over cars and jackhammers and the rest of the urban din.

City birds’ songs are sung at 195 hz higher than their country-dwelling counterparts. Their contact calls (those made to communicate things like danger, or “there’s food here!”) were 90 hz higher. Furthermore, the city birds’ songs were slower, possibly because all the buildings around them cause echoes that make their songs harder to make out at faster speeds.

To be honest, I had not noticed this. Next time I’m in some rural setting, though, I’ll be sure to try to make out the faster, lower-pitched birds.

2010: The Year of John Cage?

In 20th century music on January 10, 2011 at 2:17 am

Is there any doubt that 2010 was the year of John Cage? He was the subject of two books and, in December, for the first time ever, appeared on the UK pop charts (all part of the Cage Against the Machine craziness they had going over there).

The first book to come out this year, Kyle Gann’s “No Such Thing as Silence,” is a fantastic consideration of Cage’s 4’33” and is on my short list of best books of 2010 (the above video is a mash-up of several versions of 4’33”). The other is a straight-up biography: “Begin Again” by Kenneth Silverman. I have it but haven’t read it yet, partly because much of what I’ve heard about it sounds a lot like this:

[A] critical flaw in Silverman’s book, which for all the esteem in which it holds Cage, never quite breaks through a kind of surface telling, a recitation of facts and information without the nuance that marked its subject’s remarkable artistic life.

That’s from David L. Ulin’s review of the book in today’s LA Times (which is what made me think to post this in the first place). On the other hand, you could do a lot worse than spend your time reading a nuts and bolts biography of John Cage. I’ll give you my thoughts when I finish it.

For Your Tuesday: Metronomes!

In automated rhythm on January 4, 2011 at 3:56 am

Because we’re just crazy about metronomes here at 440Hz, here’s Gyorgy Ligeti’s Poeme Symphonique. Ligeti composed the piece for 100 metronomes in 1962. Its first public performance came in 1963, in the Netherlands. Dutch TV was on hand to film it for later broadcast. When the last ticking metronomes finally stopped, there was a long silence. And then boos. A few threats. Dutch broadcasters decided to air a soccer match instead of the performance.

Should you care to put on your own version of Poeme Symphonique, here are the rather elaborate instructions for performance, per Ligeti himself.

The Electronic Tones of the Nissan Leaf

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2011 at 11:29 pm

The Nissan Leaf is now available to U.S. car buyers. They became the first all-electric cars made commercially available in the U.S. when they rolled out into dealerships last month. I suppose this has all sorts of implications for the future of car manufacturing, fuel consumption, etc. But -as we are wont to ask here at 400Hz – what does it mean sound-wise?

It means is that we’ll be hearing what’s been described as a sine wave that sweeps from a frequency of 2.5.kHz to 600hz (roughly between a D and an E flat). That’s one of the audio options available to Leaf drivers; Nissan has installed synthesizers in each Leaf to alert pedestrians of the oncoming cars (since electric cars make no sound).

It might be the only car sound with its own Facebook page.

The synthesizer turns on automatically with ignition and shuts off automatically once the car hits 18 mph (at which point, road noise is loud enough). The driver, though, can turn it off manually at any time.

Nissan worked with advocacy groups for the blind on the sound. Nonetheless, the National Federation for the Blind was reportedly unhappy that Nissan included the option to shut off the sound.

From the New York Times:

According to [Mark Perry, Nissan’s director for product planning], the challenge was multiple — the sounds had to be loud enough to get people’s attention, but not annoying to passersby and not so low or high that older pedestrians would miss them. “It’s a well-known fact that as people age they lose higher frequencies,” he said.

Raymond Scott and the Clavivox

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2011 at 3:04 am

Happy New Year! And now, for my first real post, I shall blog about … Raymond Scott and his Clavivox.

This post is prompted by two occasions: (A.) My brother-in-law Rich gave me for Christmas a figurine of Raymond Scott and his Clavivox (see above).  And (B.) Anyone in the Calgary area later this week can witness the only working Clavivox in action AND see a documentary about the incredible Mr. Scott called “Deconstructing Dad” directed by Scott’s son, Stan Warnow.

Scott’s accomplishments are surprisingly vast and surely the subject of future 440 hz posts. For now, we’ll focus on the Clavivox, which he invented in 1952 and patented in 1956. The three-octave keyboard allowed notes to glide into each other, creating a very expressive and often eerie sound. Its design incorporated a theremin module built by a 20-year-old Bob Moog. When Scott bought the module from the man who would later revolutionize music with his Moog synthesizer, he wouldn’t say what he wanted it for. Moog later got a chance to see what Scott was up to:

This was not a theremin anymore — Raymond quickly realized there were more elegant ways of controlling an electronic circuit. He used a very steady source of light instead of a theremin for subsequent models. There was a shutter consisting of photographic film that got progressively lighter as it went up. This produced a voltage which then changed the pitch of the tone.generator.

– – Raymond had everything adjusted so that, sure enough, when you played the keyboard you got the notes of the scale. But the really neat thing, as he pointed out, was that now you could glide from note to note — you could play expressively — you didn’t have to play discrete notes.

Unlike the Moog synthesizer, though, the Claviox didn’t go on toward mass production. The only working one is kept by the Audities Foundation in Calgary, which restores and preserves vintage electronic music equipment. And, apparently, the foundation has lent its use for the screening of “Deconstrucing Dad” at the Epcor Center for the Performing Arts in Calgary Jan. 7. Here’s more information about it. So if you’re a Calgarian, or just in the area, it sounds like a great opportunity to see a very rare and very ahead-of-its-time instrument in action.