Saturday, August 13, 2016

Whale Song and Wavelets

 American engineer Mark Fischer recorded whale songs and dolphin calls. Then he transformed the recordings into visuals using a mathematical tool called "wavelets."

Here are his pretty pictures:

See more here:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Same Old Song: Humans Are Too Loud, and It's Ruining Everything

I know I've written about this before.  A few times. Quite a lot, actually.

But it bears repeating.

Humans make a lot of noise.

And it's messing things up for other animals.

The body of research suggesting that anthropogenic noise pollution has negative impacts on everything from birds, frogs, fish, insects, prairie dogs to even organisms without ears, is steadily mounting. Increasingly, human noise is being recognized as a form of habitat degradation, while at the same time we're uncovering the acoustic environment’s importance to wildlife — to behavior, communication and ultimately survival.

The fossil record reveals that animals developed ears before vocal chords. This is basically the paleontological equivalent of your grandmother reminding you that you have two ears and one mouth. Hearing is the universal alerting cue, an essential sense that’s never been seen to disappear in any species. From a zoological, evolutionary perspective, hearing is far more universal than vision, suggesting it's very important to a species' survival.

And that's where the human-generated cacophony becomes a problem. When animals' acoustic environments are altered, they must respond in order to function in a new sound environment. Animals respond to noise in many different ways, and scientists are just beginning to understand the ramifications. Some responses are behavioral and can be observed in changes in species' communication. Others show up in where animals choose to make their habitats, how successfully they fend off predators (or not), or their ability to hunt (or not) — or in subtler impacts on mating, reproductive success and physiological stress.

And, of course, as with all changes in an ecosystem, how stress is handled by one species affects all the other species in the system. Cascade affects can impact how and whether plant species are pollinated, their seeds dispersed, their populations kept in check by herbivores.

Birdsong decreases in complexity. And that's sad. That is sad, people.

Basically, human noise creates environmental stress, and animals either have to adapt, or die.
Which is a problem.

On the bright side, noise pollution is an easy problem to immediately clean up. Unlike other nasty pollutants with half-lives of millions of years, noise pollution can be made to disappear. Just like that. Really.

On the other hand, humans are still going to be all over the place, probably doing things that make noise. Noise cloaking technologies, sound-sensitive highway designs, even speed limits for boats (to protect poor whales' ears) can be developed and implemented to address this problem. But like all problems, the first step to recover is acknowledging that the problem exists.

It's the very ephemeral nature of sound, and the ease with which such a pollutant can be "cleaned up" that keeps it from being a priority when developing policy. Research on the impacts of anthropogenic noise on wildlife has only gained traction in the last 10 years. Until we can admit that the noise humans produce — from road traffic, airplanes, boats, fossil fuel extraction, mining, military activity, home air conditioning and other sources — is a widespread pollutant, we can't begin the process of cleaning it up.

*author jumps of soapbox and exits stage left*

Image by Chris Gash @

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Soundscapes in America's National Parks

Read this wonderful piece on the work of researchers recording the natural sounds of national parks all across the U.S. With more than 70 soundscapes so far, the scientists share that escaping anthropogenic sound is difficult (big surprise), and that, in some cases, the presence of human sound has had impacts on the ecosystem. In fact, certain wild sounds are becoming harder and harder to find, either due to human-made sound pollution itself, or the other impacts human development has had on the natural environment.

I'm reminded on John Cage's stance on conservation of natural sounds, and on the sonic opportunities we miss if we fail to save them. One of the researchers who has been recording soundscapes for the project agrees. "If we start to lose sounds of wilderness, we start to lose a piece of us," he said. "And that really hits at a place that we don't fully understand, but which is important."

Definitely worth the read:

Be sure to check out the great model of sound intensity across the US from the National Park Service.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Rossby Whistle" in the Caribbean Is So Loud, You Can Hear It From Space

I live in the Caribbean at the moment. And so, while this scientific discovery is pretty cool anyway, it was especially cool to me, because I got to read it in my local news.

University of Liverpool researchers have discovered a very low, very loud sound coming from the Caribbean Sea. For those wondering, it's an A-flat, but it's too far below the range of human hearing for any of us down here to be bothered by it (thank goodness).

The researchers who discovered the sound have dubbed it the Rossby whistle after the Rossby waves — a.k.a. “planetary waves” — that push across the ocean and cause the sound when they reach the Caribbean.

This "whistle" happens, because the Caribbean Sea is partially closed, and party open, so when the water rushes in from the Atlantic Ocean, it's like the air rushing into a whistle and sound being projected out the open end. Apparently, this happens every 120 days, or so, when the Sea exchanges water with the ocean. And yes, it can be "heard" from outer space, being picked up as oscillations in the earth's gravity field.

Aside from being a super-cool natural phenomenon, the Rossby Whistle could have practical purposes for predicting coastal flooding.

Top image from

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sonic Chills

When you listen to music- like, really, really good music- do you get the chills?
I do. I definitely do.
I get it when I listen to music, see a breathtaking image- generally whenever I have a really great aesthetic experience.
And, apparently, I'm one of the roughly two-thirds of people who do.

This sensation, the chill up your spine, the goosebumps on your arms and shoulders and neck, is called "frission" (t's French). And, according to a recent article on The Conversation, by Mitchell Colver, it's likely an evolutionary holdover from our ancestors, a physiological response to emotionally moving stimuli.

And it's great. It's really great. So great that scientists often refer to it as the, ahem, "skin orgasm." But, if I'm only one of the two-thirds of people who experience it, that means there's a whole third of people out there who don't. Which is unfortunate. Researchers believe that personality may play a role, with individuals who score high on tests to measure "openness to experience" being more likely to experience frission. Recently published findings in the Journal of Psychology and Music suggest that those who intellectually immerse themselves in music are more likely to experience the phenomenon.

All this leads me to question the role these factors play in one's overall enjoyment of the arts. Not to be a physiological determinist, but the notion is compelling.

And for those who want to learn to enjoy art more... it doesn't seem out of the question to consciously be "intellectually immersed." In other words: try harder, and see what happens.

Top image: Ann Trilling/Thinkstock

Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Pursuit of Silence: the rest

The last two hundred pages of George Prochnik's In Pursuite of Silence, proceeded to bounce around to as many places as the first hundred. From shopping malls to boom car clubs, to soundproofing expos, the guy is covering territory. A trip to Copenhagen highlighted his conversations with "soundscapers" and sound mapping as a means to intentionally construct a space for the optimal everyday sound experience. A visit to a college for the deaf introduced Prochnik to the Deaf community's perception of silence and their attempts at a "deaf architecture" to accommodate that experience. He goes back in history to look at the successful campaigns against noise pollution headed by Ms. Julia Rice of New York -and their ultimate demise with the advent of motorized personal transportation. He explores the design of the Japanese garden and it's intended use a a space for quiet, solitary reflection. And finally, he pays a visit to a research laboratory specializing in earthworms and nematodes.

And what comes of these adventures? After the 200 page schizophrenic ping-pong marathon of ideas Prochnik settles on a conclusion similar to that of John Cage. Sound, certainly is not bad. The sounds we made are an assertion of our physical existence (the Italian futurists really harped on that). Ambient sound is, in fact, a necessary and inescapable part of human life. Of all life. Our frantic (and often expensive) attempts to control our ambient soundscape through headphones, soundproofing technology and community policy are simply an expression of our dissatisfaction with an increasingly lo-fi environment.

Our perception of sound is often relative and highly dependent upon who you are, where you're from, how old you are, your past sound exposure, your current sound exposure, and association of ideas you create around the sound you experience. We can fight over policies all at once deemed "too unreasonable" and "not stringent enough," or, as Prochnik suggests, we should shift our focus. Rather than impose upon ourselves and others the sonic environment one person deems best, we should instead attempt to intentionally cultivate opportunities for silence. This isn't to say we should obsessively seek quiet in the sense of "anechoic chamber-type-silence," but to quiet the sounds of our self-assertion, and allow for the sounds of life to show through.

Humans aren't made for complete silence, as evidenced by our own ears' hallucination of sound in the absence of stimulation. Humans are not made for constant sonic stimulation, as evidenced by the -sometimes violent- complaints made by neighbors and communities, and the detrimental physical affects to human health. We should instead, Prochnik suggests, create opportunities for hi-fi environments to exist. It's what we crave. It's what enable the monk to seek enlightenment It's what allows you to develop spacial intelligence. It's what gives you a reprieve from your own ego, and the egos of others, and become aware of everything else.

Overall, a nice, well-researched, and thoughtful read. An excellent exploration of John Cage's later attitudes toward the value of sound and silence. Prochnik's clumsy attempts at literary flair were mostly laughable, but his research of the question from all different angles was admirable.

And to be honest, who would have thought you'd get boom cars and earthworms into the same book?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Ultrachomatic" Compositions and Rainbow Wheels

Ivan Wyshnegradsky was a Russian composer with lofty goals. The 20th century avant-garde pianist was devoted to creating works "capable of awakening in every man the slumbering forces of cosmic consciousness." To do this, he sought out sounds to create music like no one had ever heard before. Sounds like a tall order, if you ask me.

His music was microtonal, meaning that it transcended the 12-scale tuning system in traditional Western music. Microtones are basically the notes between the notes- the Zeno's paradox of music, if you will. I know what you're wondering, and no, you can't play these notes on a regular piano. He spent some time trying to build a special piano that one could play these things on. In the late 1920s, he finished work on a quarter tone piano and began composing some interesting things.

But it was in the 1940s that things started to get really fun. This was when he began translating his "ultrachromatic" compositions into elaborate color wheels. By applying the concepts of synesthesia, be blurred the lines between sound and color, assigning each cell of the wheel a semitone in the musical sequence. What's cool is that you're supposed to be able to follow the spirals and visually "listen" to the melodies they represent.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.