By The Landlord
A stranger called this morning
Dressed all in black and grey
Put every sound into a bag
And carried them away
The whistling of the kettle
The turning of the lock
The purring of the kitten
The ticking of the clock
The popping of the toaster
The crunching of the flakes
When you spread the marmalade
The scraping noise it makes
The hissing of the frying pan
The ticking of the grill
The bubbling of the bathtub
As it starts to fill
The drumming of the raindrops
On the windowpane
When you do the washing-up
The gurgle of the drain … - Roger McGough, The Sound Collector
At midnight in the museum hall
The fossils gathered for a ball
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses …. – Ogden Nash, Fossils
Mr Brown is smart, as smart as they come.
He can do a hippopotamus chewing gum.
Mr Brown is so smart, he can even do this:
He can make a noise like a goldfish kiss. – Dr Seuss, Mr Brown Can Moo, Can You?
Boing! Splash! Crunch! Drip! Boom! Cuckoo! Smash! Plop! Our world is awash with sounds, from the call and hoot of biology, to the rush, whoosh and splash of the environmental, to the click, hum and crash-bang of the man-made. And so in turn our language and music continuously repeats, mimics or remixes it into our own forms, into anything from clattering cacophony to serene, calming harmony. So in this week’s theme let’s see what echoes back in the world of song, with two forms of onomatopoeia – first, where lyrics and titles use words that sound like what they are describing, and second, where conventional musical instruments and voices, as opposed to recorded sound effects, mimic other sounds.
So what kind of words wash up in onomatopoeic songs? Let’s start with some that describe human noises. The heartbeat is the original rhythm instrument, but you might also like to pick out words that express breathing, laughter, crying, kissing, drinking, biting or swallowing and any other eating, chomping or other noises, not to mention belching and flatulence. And then there’s the sound of brushing teeth, sneezing, yawning and snoring, hushing, stuttering, screaming and shrieking, even sounds that evoke thinking. So check out lyrics that, in a tactile way, use any words that evoke such activities.
What's wonderful is that onomatopoeic words you find in lyrics can also be international, but with some fun variants. Heartbeats vary as much as musical styles, from the English thump-thump, ba-boom and lub-dub, but in in Japanese it's doki doki and Estonian and Latvia the heart makes a tuk-tuk sound. Is that down to climate or diet? Laughter's ha-ha seems to be universal, as is snoring's zzzs, but in Swedish sleeping there’s the snark, in German there's a hrr-pfüüh and in Bengali a bhnosh bhnosh, all highly musical sounds.
Another rich area of onomatopeia can be found in animal and other creatural sounds, from bees buzzing to a whole variety of bird calls, from chirps to tweets and peeps, crows cawing, and including of course, the self-descriptive cuckoo. Cats meow, dogs bark or howl, (or indeed go bow-wow-wow) but in Albanian and Romanian hungry dogs call for ham-ham, and in Basque small dogs don't yap, they txau txau, while big dogs zaunk zaunk. Chickens cluck, cows moo, donkeys hee-haw, ducks quack, elephants trumpet, frogs croak, but Germans invented the word gribbit. And there are bleating goats, honking geese, neighing horses (hiii hiii in Italian) who also clip clop as they move, but in Portugese they rather gracefully pocotó pocotó. Lions roar, monkeys chatter and oo-aaah, just like us, hooting owls twit-twos in English, but in most other languages they hu hu. Pigs oink and squeal, but in Polish they chrum, and France they groin groin. Cocks crow with a cock a doodle doo almost uniquely in English while in most other places they kukuriku or something like that. Lambs and sheep bleat with a baa, snakes hiss, but in Persian they füke and Italian they pis!
We’ve already enjoyed a bit of the superb Dr Seuss from the Fox in Socks and his tongue-twisters to Mr Brown who can make any sound. Now let’s have a song example. This Todd Rundgren number is all too obvious, and has been listed for a previous topic I wrote in the past, odd sounds and strange instruments, but gives an overview, and will, I hope, get you in the mood:
The world at large is also full of other onomatopoeic sounds, from bangs to thumps to pops to splats to booms, gunshot to balloons bursting, electricity buzzing and humming and zapping, plus hammering, crashing, doors creaking, car engines vrooming, brakes screeching and things breaking with a crack or crunch, doors knocking, clicking camera shutters, clocks ticking, doorbells ding-donging, typewriters tapping, telephones ringing, sirens wailing, to trains whistling and bombs booming (but in Brazilian bumming). And then there's natural phenomena such as fire crackling (knister in German, knaster in Swedish), the kaboom of thunder and lightning, hissing steam, the plop of dripping water, the whoosh of wind, as well as jingling and tingling, tinkling, sprinkling and splashing. It's a noisy but musical world out there, full of wonderful, evocative words to spot in lyrics.
This brings us another form of onomatopoeia, more a music form mimicry, and songs where conventional music instruments evoke other sounds.
The human voice is perhaps the greatest instrument to mimic other sounds, but surely no human can compete with the amazing lyre bird, who is able not only do other many other bird calls, but also cameras clicking, car alarms and even the sound of chainsaws. Over to you, David Attenborough:
Nevertheless, there are many great human vocalists who can evoke other sounds, copying animal calls or other onomatopoeic noises from clanging bells to gunshots, and some even copy other instruments. That’s not say we’re just looking for songs that include a Percy Thrower. Chet Baker’s singing voice sounds very much like it is copying his own trumpet, for example, Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart emit a machine-like grind, and Joanna Newsom and Björk certainly copy sounds from nature in their voices.
Wind and brass instruments, as an extension of the voice and body, variously toot, fart, and parp, but can also evoke many other sounds too, sometimes beautiful or bizarre. And this as in this rather wonderful comical and vehicular example making splendid use of a trombone:
Classical composers have long used their full range of instruments to evoke other sounds, to evoke guns in battle, to horses running, to industrial processes. Film composers in particular are the true experts in this field, and there are numerous examples, particularly in the silent era, but few more effective than, for example, that of Bernard Herrmann recreating the sounds of city streets and traffic in Taxi Driver, to the extraordinary use of violins in Alfred HItchcock’s Psycho to copy the screams and stabs of the infamous shower scene:
From traffic noises and engines to babies crying, perhaps it is the guitar, armed with various effects pedals, that offers up a rich source of examples for the musical side of onomatopoeia.This is also where the foreign language equivalents also take an interesting turn, the guitar wah-wah pedal echoes the words for a crying baby as the same in German, Mandarin, Arabic and other languages. But while for eating, we might use chomp, munch or nom in English has foreign equivalents, but in Estonian it is ‘amps'! So, dear readers and listeners, look out for songs where instruments copy anything, from cats scratching and meowing to dogs barking, birds squawking, factory or machine noises, subways, traffic, hospital equipment, telephones and other beeps.
Here’s a couple of examples. In the song Skin Graph, Silversun Pickups’s guitarists recreates the sound of roaring engines:
And in a more famous example, Steve Miller uses his guitar to create a catcall in The Joker:
So then as I turn the Song Bar pipes with a squeaky twist, and pour the first pint with splash and and a splosh, let’s hear a satisfied gulp and a happy sigh as we welcome back this week’s guest playlist and sonic librarian, the superlative Severin! Place your onomatopoeic songs, in lyrics, titles or music mimicry, in comments below in time for last orders on Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. Let’s make some noise …
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