Let’s Hear it for Vocal Fry!

December 12, 2011

If you let your voice slip down into the lower registers, it starts to buzz and creak — a speech pattern known as glottalization, or vocal fry. (Here’s what it sounds like, courtesy of ScienceNOW.) According to a small recent study, vocal fry may be on the rise, at least among young American women: when 34 college-age women were asked to read sentences for researchers, two-thirds of them exhibited the vocal pattern, particularly at the ends of sentences. (In contrast, college-age men don’t express vocal fry, according to yet-unpublished data from the research team.) Vocal fry was once considered a speech disorder, as it was thought to damage the vocal cords; now it sounds like just another linguistic trend. “Young students tend to use it when they get together,” says Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, a speech scientist at Long Island University and a co-author of the study.  “Maybe this is a social link between members of a group.” Like yeah, maybe …


Wolk, L., Abdelli-Beruh, N., & Slavin, D. (2011). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers Journal of Voice DOI: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.04.007


When Latex Vibrates

September 19, 2011

Stan Wood, a musician in Portland, Oregon, spent thirty-five years perfecting the Vibraband, an instrument made from a strip of latex rubber that can sound like a trumpet, a saxophone, a clarinet, and more. Think of the strips of grass you blew on as a kid, except sublime. Below, Wood talks with Addi Somekh (who plays the balloon bass, hosts the TLC show “The Unpoppables,” and also produced the video above) about the origins of his inspiration. “When I first started to play strips of rubber …”


Can vuvuzelas make you sick? They’re certainly irritating: the drone from the two-foot long plastic horns is so loud and distracting that FIFA considered banning them during last year’s World Cup in South Africa. Last April, a study in the South African Medical Journal found that the sound from a vuvuzela can approach 140 dB, more than sufficient to damage hearing. Players on the pitch have a hard time hearing over it. “It is impossible to communicate,” Argentine forward Lionel Messi told The Times. “It’s like being deaf.

The vuvuzela may also be a singularly effective way of spreading a cold, the flu, or worse. A study by public-health researchers in London, published in May in PLoS ONE, revealed that the vuvuzela “is an efficient means of propagating large numbers of aerosols.” By “aerosols” they mean those potentially germ-carrying droplets of water you release into the air whenever you cough, sneeze, talk, or simply open your mouth. Using a laser particle counter, the researchers found that a person shouting through a rolled-up piece of paper expels about 7,000 droplets per second into the surrounding air. That’s more than a cough (5,000 particles per second) but fewer than a sneeze (900,000 particles)–yet far below the 4 million droplets per second broadcast by someone blowing a vuvuzela, the study found. Imagine yourself surrounded by a stadium full of vuvuzela blowers; that’s quite a rain of spittle. The study looked only at the vuvuzela’s ability to spread water droplets, not at its ability to transmit disease per se. But that subject begs further investigation, the study’s authors note, especially given that South Africa boasts the highest urban prevalence of tuberculosis in the world. In the meantime, the researchers “recommend, as a precautionary measure, that people with respiratory infections should be advised not to blow their vuvuzela in enclosed spaces and where there is a risk of infecting others.” Heard loud and clear.

Lai KM, Bottomley C, & McNerney R (2011). Propagation of respiratory aerosols by the vuvuzela. PloS one, 6 (5) PMID: 21629778


Mucus to Your Ears

June 13, 2011

At the recent Acoustical Society of America meeting in Seattle, independent inventor Sandy Hawkins presented “the purr-cough,” a new way to cough and dislodge mucus from the lungs. Science News characterizes the new cough as

a loud purring sound made with the tip of the tongue and the thumb pressed against the lips. It works because mucus, like ketchup, is a non-Newtonian fluid that becomes more liquid when a force is applied, such as the low-frequency vibrations of purring.

Hawkins, trained as an acoustics engineer, is previously known for inventing the FDA-approved “lung flute,” a plastic tube that, when blown, vibrates the chest and lungs with 16-hertz sound waves and helps expel mucus. Both the lung flute and the new cough were designed as tools to help collect mucus from patients suspected of carrying tuberculosis. Hawkins conceived the lung flute after learning that each year 127,000 Americans die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which results from a buildup of mucus and bacteria in the lungs and can lead to pneumonia. “It’s the number-four cause of death in the U.S.,” he told Popular Science. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I should do something about this.’ ”


Click to hear the NPR story

A fascinating story on NPR about a woman who went in for dental surgery and emerged with a pronounced foreign accent:

She’d developed a rare condition called foreign accent syndrome that’s usually caused by an injury to the part of the brain that controls speech…. She’s never traveled to Europe or lived in a foreign country — she’s an American, she says, “born and bred.” But she doesn’t sound like one anymore. Her accent is now a hodgepodge of English, Irish and perhaps a bit of other European accents.

Potentially she could recover her American accent through speech therapy, but she prefers the new one, which she tells NPR has “made her more outgoing and is a good conversation starter.”



For $1 billion, Apple can build a giant iCloud that lets me listen to my music anywhere. For $30, why can’t they build a set of earbuds that doesn’t tangle, so I can actually hear all that music in my ears?


A recent story on WNET’s “Need To Know” tuned us in to the work of Micah Frank, a Brookyln sound programmer and founder of the Tectonic Project, which aggregates real-time earthquake data from around the world (via the U.S. Geological Survey) and parses it into different sounds based on the parameters of the original data, including a quake’s magnitude, latitude, and longitude. (Pitch, for instance, is determined by the quake’s depth.)

The data is collected by USGS sensors located around the world. As there’s pretty much always a quake underway somewhere, the audible output of the Tectonic Project is a multilayered, near continuous, and decidedly eerie stream of sound. “It’s just another dimension,” Frank says. “I think a lot of people agree that it sounds like what the earth should sound like.”

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, Frank posted clips on his Soundcloud page of several of the smaller, subsequent aftershocks:

Magnitude 5.4 – Off the east coast of Honshu, Japan 2011 March 11 17-32-13 UTC by Micah Frank

Magnitude 5.5 – Off the east coast of Honshu, Japan 2011 March 11 16-11-26 UTC by Micah Frank

Magnitude 5.0 – Near the east coast of Honshu, Japan 2011 March 11 15-46-01 UTC by Micah Frank

Magnitude 5.1 – Near the east coast of Honshu, Japan 2011 March 11 14-44-07 UTC by Micah Frank

He also has created a video that explains (sort of) how the Tectonic Project works:

Tectonic: Earthquakes Generate Music in Realtime from Micah Frank on Vimeo.

Frank’s site describes several other intriguing projects he has underway, including Solar, which parses data from the National Space Weather Prediction Center and converts it into sound; and Junction, which tracks the movements of taxis in some of the busiest sections of New York City and synthesizes sounds based on their positions, velocities, and overall density. Needless to say, it’s a lot more fun than actually riding in a NYC cab.


The world’s seas and other aquatic environments are getting louder, thanks to us humans. The noise poses an obvious threat to animals like whales and dolphins, but how might it alter the behavior of the sea’s smaller yet equally sonically attuned creatures? Through underwater speakers, University of Bristol biologist Julia Purser serenaded three-spined sticklebacks with noise at levels similar to those produced by recreational speedboats. Even a brief exposure to noise, it turns out, causes the animals to make more foraging mistakes — they attacked inedible algae instead of tasty water fleas — and rendered them less efficient at eating the food they did catch.

“Much as you or I might struggle to concentrate on a difficult assignment when faced with loud construction noise, these stickleback seemed unable to keep their mind fully on the job at hand, attending to random items of tank debris and mishandling food items more frequently when noise was played…. This study illustrates the importance of not only looking for the more obvious immediate effects of noise, such as hearing deficits and dramatic behavioural changes associated with stress, but also examining the more subtle but nonetheless important and potentially damaging impacts on the everyday behavior of animals.”

Purser, J., & Radford, A. (2011). Acoustic Noise Induces Attention Shifts and Reduces Foraging Performance in Three-Spined Sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017478


Sperm-whale expert Hal Whitehead talks to Philip Hoare of The Guardian about the cultural life of whales, and its potential origins:

… about a quarter of their body is this huge sonar system which makes very loud clicks and which allows them to find food deep under the ocean. But they use the same system to communicate. The whales modify these clicks and put them into patterns. I, and others, have tried to figure out what these patterns mean – one thing is clear, they appear to be used as a means of reinforcing social bonds….

Sperm whales have the most powerful sonar in the natural world. It is very directional and extremely powerful. To use the sonar effectively, you not only need to make a click, you need to hear it. Any ear damage would be very dangerous; as some people have said, a deaf whale is a dead whale. Whales have got to look after their ears. So it seems highly likely that if a sperm whale’s sonar system were directed at another whale’s ears, it would be very dangerous for the receiver.

Imagine a group of 20-30 sperm whales feeding at depth, each making these dangerous clicks once a second. They are all in the same area so they need to be really careful. To me it is like having a bunch of hunters with machine guns out in the forest, they are firing away pretty continuously and they have got to have clear rules if they are all going to come out of the forest alive. So I think there must be some conventions they abide by about how you use these sonar systems. This, by some definitions at least, is morality.


From the slide rules at Stanford:

With the holiday season (and lots of shopping) just behind us, there’s no better time to ask whether it would really be a fate so terrible if we were met with silence while we shopped, instead of played-out, early-decade billboard hits. How much would we lighten the energy load at retail centers if they just eased up on the clichéd chord progressions?

… we hashed out the numbers and came back with something rather astonishing. In the malls of America alone, horrendous vocals and ’80s synths account for roughly 1.18 Gigawatt hours of energy usage a month. That adds up to more than 7 million pounds of CO2 lofted into the atmosphere annually upon the dulcet tones of Bryan Adams and Britney Spears.