THE LONDON SOUND SURVEY BLOG
Occasional posts on subjects like field recording, London sounds past and present, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.
Occasional posts on subjects like field recording, London sounds past and present, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.
A POPULAR PIECE of wisdom for those being attacked or mugged is to shout Fire! instead of Help! That way more people are supposed to come out and look for what’s going on, although it’s maybe not such a good idea if someone’s pointing a gun at you.
Shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre is a different matter and in the US it’s become a metaphor evoking the act of inspiring unnecessary panic in general. The term arose from the judge’s summing-up of the case of Schenck v. United States 1919 in which leafleters who’d urged men to dodge the draft were prosecuted.
For a long time our own laws had little to say about false warning cries, despite the 1856 stampede at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall in which 15 people were killed. The Fire Services Act 1947 comes close in Section 31:
Later, more stringent penalties were introduced under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 for any fool communicating a bomb hoax.
Luckily the law places much more emphasis on what sounds you shouldn’t make rather than specifying those you should. This post digs around the statute books to find examples of both.
Local laws hedging noisy activities, such as metal-working, to within daylight hours have existed since the Middle Ages. The setting-up of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 soon led to standardised definitions of noise nuisances which applied across England and Wales.
The amended Metropolitan Police Act 1839 describes these nuisances at length in Section 54:
Every person shall be liable to a penalty not more than [level 2 on the standard scale], who, within the limits of the metropolitan police district, shall in any thoroughfare or public place, commit any of the following offences; (that is to say,)
[. . .]
12. Every person who shall sell or distribute or offer for sale or distribution, or exhibit to public view, any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers;
13. Every person who shall use any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned;
14. Every person, who shall blow any horn or use any other noisy instrument, for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms;
15. Every person who shall wantonly discharge any fire-arm or throw or discharge any stone or other missile, to the damage or danger of any person, or make any bonfire, or throw or set fire to any firework;
16. Every person who shall wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant by pulling or ringing any door-bell or knocking at any door without lawful excuse, or who shall wilfully and unlawfully extinguish the light of any lamp;
And it shall be lawful for any constable belonging to the metropolitan police force to take into custody, without warrant, any person who shall commit any such offence within view of any such constable.
A near-identical list of misdemeanours appears in the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 applying to the rest of England and Wales. The Act is still in force and can be resorted to by local councils.
For decades those Acts appeared sufficient to place some boundaries around the urge of every male urchin to turn their neighbourhood into a mini war-zone thanks to the magic of fireworks. The importation of powerful and excitingly unpredictable Chinese fireworks starting from around the late 1980s led to the Fireworks Regulations 2004 which imposes limits on how loud fireworks can be:
1. No person shall supply, or offer or agree to supply, any category 3 firework which, when used, produces a maximum A-weighted impulse sound pressure level exceeding 120 decibels when measured in accordance with paragraph (2) below.
2. For the purposes of paragraph (1) above, the sound pressure level is to be measured –
a. at a horizontal distance of fifteen metres from the testing point at a height of one metre above the ground; and
b. using a sound measuring device which conforms to type 1 of BS EN 61672 with a free-field microphone.
Suspicions that law-makers are out to stop young people having fun arose the previous decade with the widely-mocked repetitive beats Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Somehow the Act avoids handling the word rave within inverted commas, much as you might imagine an elderly dowager would remove a dog turd from the croquet lawn with a pair of sugar-tongs, but the sense of a slight forensic pause before uttering the word still seems implicit:
63. Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave.
1. This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose –
a. such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and
b. “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.
Further satisfaction came a few years later for those who thought the era of raves and free festivals embodied the worst excesses of unbridled bacchanalia. Regulation 4 of The Stonehenge Regulations 1997 prohibited solstice-celebrating crusties and Druids from:
Several statutory instruments are available to local councils for the more mundane tasks of dealing with raucous and thoughtless residents. Section 77 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 defines when a burglar alarm starts being irritating rather than useful (20 minutes if sounding continuously), and lays down the conditions under which council officials can force their way into someone’s home to turn it off.
The recognition that high levels of noise at work could pose real and cumulative dangers to people’s hearing came relatively late. The Factories Act 1937 lists numerous hazards from poorly-secured trapdoors to unacceptably high levels of humidity, but makes no mention of noise.
Much progress has been made since. Regulation 4 of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 tells employers to begin to take action if their workers are exposed to constant noise of 80dBA with peak levels of 135DbA. It imposes absolute limits of 87dBA and 140dBA respectively.
Concern with the harmful effects of loud and persistent noise has even been extended to farm animals. Schedule 3D of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2002 gives protection to chickens, up to the point of their demise at least:
The keepers of London’s Royal Parks had all the powers of police constables under the Parks Regulation Act 1872 until they were absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 1974. Even so, they didn’t have quite the same scope of authority assumed by the Viz comic character the Parkie, who was only happy when doing things like putting up signs reading No ball games in the tennis courts.
Many parks regulations place limits on noise-making and give special attention to activities like busking and soapbox oratory. Royal Parks police can, under the the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2012, prevent people from operating ‘amplified noise equipment’, which includes loudspeakers and megaphones.
With a bracing climate comes stern rules and, in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, you must obtain written permission before playing any kind of musical instrument or, bizarrely, making a sketch or painting. The Forestry Land Byelaws (Northern Ireland) 2013 forbid shouting, singing, and playing a musical instrument if someone deems it a nuisance.
As if sensing there’s some kind of competition going on, Section 9 of the London Cable Car Order 2012 gets in on the action by stipulating that:
(1) A person on the cable car system must not –
(a) sing; or
(b) use any instrument, article or equipment for the production or reproduction of sound,
to the annoyance of any person on the cable car system except with written permission from the operator or an authorised person.
Nearly all the sounds that the law says must be made refer to warnings to help prevent collisions and other accidents. Numerous railway orders applying to individual level crossings and light railways have much the same wording as Article 11 of the Level Crossing (Coldagh) Order (Northern Ireland) 1998:
Life gets more interesting at sea. The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1989 require that a vessel of 12 metres or more in length carry a whistle and a bell. A vessel 100 metres or longer must carry a whistle, a bell and a gong – that’s almost a folk group.
But just because you’ve got a whistle to hand doesn’t mean you can sail aboard HMS Ramrod tooting it whenever you like. As Article 12 of the Dockyard Port of Plymouth Order 1999 states:
A whistle shall not be used within the limits of the Dockyard Port except –
(a) in accordance with the Rules contained in Schedule 2 to this Order;
(b) as a signal of distress;
(c) to prevent collision;
(d) in any condition affecting visibility;
(e) to test the whistle, provided that permission to do so has first been obtained from the Queen’s Harbour Master.
Shouting for help works on the assumption that you won’t have to do it for very long and someone’s near enough to hear, whether you use the fire ruse or not. In remote places shouting isn’t the best strategy because you’ll quickly become tired or, if you’ve fallen and injured yourself, you may not have the strength to begin with.
Wise hill-walkers and mountaineers carry whistles with them and the internationally-recognised distress signal is six short blasts in quick succession, repeated at one-minute intervals.
The serious business of rescuing people from accidents in mines has its own pattern of signals laid down in the Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995. One blast on a whistle or ‘other audible device’ means help wanted, two for halt, three for retire, four for advance, and five to call attention.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, an official directive was issued covering the use of the internet and mobile phones in Tajikistan. It has the title Ethics Code for an e-Citizen and, among other things, seeks to dissuade citizens from talking loudly on mobile phones in public and from disseminating ‘unpleasant sounds and unprintable words’ via electronic means.
In the United Kingdom, a number of laws place specific limits on what sounds you can get away with making, and where and what you can record. Pragmatism mostly rules and thankfully there are as yet no uplifting goals like the ones in the Tajikistani directive, such as the hope that ‘positive thinking, positive communication, and positive action should prevail in virtual space’.
This blog post digs up some of the potential legal limits which field recordists might encounter. Those of us recording the sounds of urban environments in particular might run into problems similar to those besetting photographers, with overzealous officials and others claiming that recording in such-and-such place is illegal, that it infringes someone’s human rights, and so on.
There’s also the growing habit of bringing words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘security’ into play as an attempt at shut-up-and-do-as-you’re-told, but as we’ll see there are few situations in which such claims have any legal, let alone rational, substance.
Criminal law in the United Kingdom places few explicit limits on recordists. One example of a very definite stricture is Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which makes it illegal to:
Under section 34C of the Prison Act 1952 you’re also in trouble if you’re one of those reprobates who:
The Act helpfully defines what a sound recording is:
Neither photographs nor, for obvious reasons, sound recordings are described as possible espionage activities in the Official Secrets Act 1911. Section 1 of the Act instead describes information-gathering for hostile ends such as making:
Over the years a changing of list of ‘prohibited places’ has been developed in law from the terms of the Official Secrets Act where photography and, in later definitions, digital recording of all kinds could involve breaking the law.
For example, the Official Secrets (Prohibited Places) Order 1994 adds a number of nuclear installations, including Sellafield, Capenhurst and Harwell. Military bases are also off-limits. Schedule 17 of the Communications Act 2003 defines the premises of communications providers as prohibited places too:
More and more of what appear to be public spaces are, in fact, privately owned. Shopping centres, many newly-built squares and plazas, and that slender corridor of possession between the side of a building and the row of brass studs set into the pavement are all private property. Under civil law, property owners have the right to tell you to stop recording within their premises or on their land.
They can ask you to leave if you don’t comply too, but they can’t prevent you recording sounds emanating from within private premises if you’re standing outside in a public place. For a good overview of the legal ins and outs as they affect photographers, see this section on Mike Slocombe’s urban75 website.
By the same token, photographers should be able to take pictures of buildings so long as they’re standing on private land. In practice it doesn’t always work out this way, as a video from the London Street Photography Festival shows:
The impression you may get from the encounters in the video is of security staff who don’t know much about the law and who may be worried about losing their jobs if they’re not seen to be doing something. But there’s always the chance of someone who simply wants to assert themselves or alleviate the boredom of a long, uneventful shift.
What they can’t do at all is demand that you hand over your recorder or delete files from it. Even the police can only do the former, and the latter not at all. However annoyed you may feel, first make sure that you really are in the right and, second, don’t swear, whine, lose your cool, or start jabbing your finger at them. Life’s easier in the long run if you’re calm and polite while you stick to your guns.
The law on privacy is rather vague, and much of what is set down applies not to individuals, but to organisations. For example, Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides general protection for the privacy of an individual’s home and family life, and their personal correspondence, and this obviously extends to recording what people say among themselves.
In a similar spirit, the CCTV Code of Conduct (revised 2008) from the Information Commissioner’s Office recommends that operators generally shouldn’t record conversations:
But both these aim to govern the behaviour of organisations towards individuals, not the behaviour of individuals themselves. In 2008, the then Home Office minister Tony McNulty confirmed in response to photographers’ queries that:
If you’re a lone field recordist simply pursuing your hobby then you’d have to go to unusual and creepy lengths to fall foul of the law on privacy grounds. If a recordist persistently followed someone around to record everything they say, they could have an injunction brought against them on the grounds of harassment. This constitutes an outer limit to ‘no presumption of privacy’ and one which you’d hope no-one reading this intends pushing.
Otherwise what governs your behaviour will be a matter of personal belief, most likely an application of the Golden Rule to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. For example, I don’t home in on private conversations and record them at great length, whether it’s people on the bus or sitting outside a pub, and certainly would not allow through anything which might help a stranger identify them. It’s a different matter when someone’s broadcasting their voice loudly with the aim of being heard by people they don’t know, such as with soapbox speakers.
If you want to see an example of a position worked out with both moral and legal implications in mind, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on privacy are worth reading.
Lastly, an intricate set of rules in the Telecommunications Act 1984 applies to recording telephone conversations, both on the public network and on more limited systems such as a company’s internal phone lines. The general gist of this, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and related laws, is that it’s okay if you record a phone conversation you have with someone else, even without their consent, provided you don’t make the recording available to a third party. More extensive and detailed rules apply to organisations.
Despite the universality of copyright, many still have only a hazy idea of its scope. For example, I’ve come across people who believe that they can string two or three words together and then copyright that combination, as used in a company name or other venture. Not so.
Such flaky opportunism might extend to the belief that copyright automatically applies to utterances. Again, this isn’t correct. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 makes it clear that any kind of performance needs to be both original and established in a fixed medium before it can be copyrighted, for example by writing it down:
Field recordists have much more reason to be cautious around copyrighted music. Suppose you’re recording outdoors somewhere, and from a nearby house can be heard the muffled sounds of Cypress Hill’s Another Body Drops. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act allows some limited exceptions with copyrighted works in general, such as for news reportage and what’s termed incidental inclusion. But Section 31 of the Act underlines the stringency with which this applies to musical works in particular:
Proving whether an inclusion is truly incidental or not might seem too much trouble for a copyright holder, but bear in mind any legal action resulting will occur in the sphere of civil law, where the standards of proof needed by whoever’s bringing the action are lower than those needed in criminal law.
In practice, rights holders have enough on their plates with worries about counterfeiting and mass filesharing. It’s not so much that, in your two-minute recording of a residential street in Lower Sydenham, about 15 seconds of Cypress Hill can be discerned. It’s more what you intend to do with the recording. The worst that’s likely to happen if you’re simply making the recording freely available through your own blog is a snotty cease-and-desist message from a solicitor. Whether you then choose to obey its terms or reject them is up to you, but it’s a bad idea simply to ignore it.
If in doubt, get advice. Look for a legal practice with a focus on intellectual property and see if you can at least get a free half-hour consultation – many firms will offer that service.
NOW’S A GREAT time to be alive if you love searching for patterns in data. One among many examples of this is the Google Ngram Viewer. It can hurry through a database of several million digitised books to generate a plot of how the popularity of a word or phrase changes over time.
Last year I wrote this post about sound descriptions in 19th-century newspapers, made possible by using the British Newspaper Archive. It was striking how the journalists of those times used a rich and wide vocabulary to describe sound, much more so than you’d come across in today’s newspapers.
To see whether this pattern is confirmed across English literature in general over the past two centuries, I drew up a list of a few dozen sound-related words and made Google ngram plots for them. At first it seemed to confirm those suspicions. Virtually all such words showed a marked decrease in frequency during the 20th century.
But this was partly an artefact of the database selected: British English. This includes non-fiction works, such as technical books and other pragmatic works. It’s possible that such books tend not to have many sensory descriptions and that their numbers have increased over time relative to fiction.
So, with the English fiction database selected instead, I made a quick survey of the fortunes of 45 sound-words. A more complex pattern emerges, with some words becoming more popular and others less. Of course, you could easily expand that list five-fold, spend a year investigating the contexts in which the words were used, and get yourself a Masters degree. But this is just a blog post.
The words din, uproar, racket, clamour (plus the American clamor) and hubbub often apply to mass noise-making entities such as crowds, flocks and herds, or to collections of machinery, such as inside a factory. Din shows a slight decrease since the early 19th century, clamour and uproar decline markedly during the 20th century, hubbub shows a gentler decline, and racket enjoys a surge in popularity towards the middle of the 20th century before declining. There is a confounding factor with racket‘s other meaning as a criminal or shady enterprise, perhaps linked with Prohibition and illegal gambling.
Bang, boom, clatter, and clang generally suggest loud or short-lived percussive and explosive sounds. Rumble is more ambiguous and can apply across many domains: thunder, distant gunfire, squadrons of aircraft, traffic and so on. Unsurprisingly these all increase during the Industrial Revolution. Boom shows peaks towards the end and just after the First World War, and during the Second World War. It also has obvious other meanings connected with the economy and sales.
Buzz, hum and honk originate as sounds usually made by people and animals but progressively apply to mechanical sounds. Honk, once the habit of geese, shows a marked increase in usage with the advent of the motor car. Whirr applies to fast-moving mechanisms and also has a visual aspect, suggesting something so rapid that it can’t be seen clearly. Rattle is confounded with the noun but also shows a decline from the early half of the 20th century, perhaps reflecting audible changes in how machines function and are put together.
Chime, tinkle, jingle and clink all increase in frequency over the last two centuries, with tinkle showing a later decline, perhaps because modern writers find it a little too pretty. Peal shows a dramatic slump in popularity, presumably matching the church’s loss of pre-eminence.
Sound-words for unrestrained vocalisations have generally done well over time, although shout and roar have declined somewhat in popularity since the mid-20th century. Yell shows a peak during the Second World War, followed by a drop, and then a steady increase. This perhaps reflects a shift in the word’s popular usage from the context of conflict towards signifying exuberance. Scream‘s dramatic rise since about 1970 suggests a darker turn in fiction towards horror and individualised violence.
Groan, moan and whine pick up in popularity towards the end of the 20th century, with the first two probably enjoying sexual connotations which they hadn’t had in earlier fiction. Wail has shown little overall change since the 1880s, and bawl is at its most popular during the early and mid-20th century.
One of the best ways for a sound-word associated with animals to thrive is to encompass some human sound or to expand to take in a mechanical sound, as with honk earlier or, too recent to show up in the results, tweet. Grunt, howl and bellow can apply both to human and animal vocalisations and so enjoy sustained popularity. So too does bleat, although this has always been less common throughout the last two centuries. Neigh, however, is something only horses do and predictably it has steadily declined along with the importance of horse-power in daily life.
What are generally thought of as onomatopoeic animal sound-words are in fact somewhat formalised and can vary considerably across languages. Pigs in the English-speaking world are said to go oink oink but their Japanese equivalents sound like boo boo. The pattern is one of general decline over the last century for woof and baa, although the latter shows a curious surge during the Second World War period – why might this be? Moo holds steady during most of the 20th century before a decline towards the end. Oink appears too rare to discern any meaningful trend, and miaow (and the American meow) is alone in becoming more popular, perhaps as cats become the pet of choice for urbanites living by themselves.
Variations in the frequency of melody and harmony track each other closely, suggesting that they’re often mentioned together in the same books. In the early 19th century, treble is more popular than bass but this reverses by the latter part of the century and the gap has grown wider ever since. The most striking feature of the ngram is the rise of rhythm to pre-eminence from the 1930s onwards, reflecting fundamental changes in the style of popular music.
ONE OF THE measures of a successful artist these days is how good they are at logistics. This reflects a shift in emphasis from making beautiful objects to delivering clever or impressive projects.
Stop squeezing that tube of Payne’s Grey for a moment and wonder how you’d go about assembling a small flotilla of tugboats and lightships, then have them steam all the way from the mouth of the Thames estuary up to the Pool of London. When they arrive, they perform a 40-odd minute musical composition using their horns, bells and hooters.
Just in case a few trogolodytes still don’t notice there’s something unusual going on, you’ve arranged for HMS Belfast to fire blank rounds from its forward gun turret.
This was the spectacle laid on last Saturday as part of the Thames Festival. The performance was titled 1513: A Ships’ Opera and you can read more about it here. I recorded most of the show from the Thames path with a pair of Shure WL-183 mics stuck on my head and the results turned out okay. Here is an an eight-minute section:
I’m not entirely sure if that’s the best eight minutes or not but it is fairly representative. At times there seemed to be a faint similarity to some piece or other by the composer Jonathan Harvey, but mostly it was like a pastiche of the kind of serialist music which has never achieved popularity.
Not everyone’s attention was held for long and the majority of spectators stood still and listened for between five and ten minutes before getting itchy feet and drifting off. Play them something they know!
But others lapped it up. An American next to me cried out in delight This is crazy! while his son attended to his smartphone.
Like anyone frustrated by life, I claim the right to imagine a better alternative if only I ran things. For starters, the ships would have played recognisable tunes but badly in a deliberate way, like how the comedian Les Dawson used to play the piano:
The Ships’ Opera was good fun though. What lingered in the mind was a sense of grandeur from all the loud sounds echolocating the layout of the surrounding city.