Decoding the Tarzan Yell

A yelling apeman, by Angelines Amaro Gómez.
A yelling apeman, by Angelines Amaro Gómez.

I was working with Teresa Ruiz-Coll in the problem of the transcription of vocal microtonality when I read in The Times (Nov 1st, 2007) the difficulties of the heirs of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author who created Tarzan, to register in Europe the sound of the Tarzan Yell as an EU trademark. The problem was that the sound was required to be transcribed into musical notes, and that, accordingly, the unreadable raw spectrogram presented in the European Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market was rejected. The following is a record of the classical Yell as appears in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies:

 

 

Of course, a transcription with conventional notes could be forced, as here, but, as happens so often with traditional music chants, a big part of the Yell personality resides in the small microtonal inflexions of the pitch. We applied the same method used in our musicological studies to extract the fundamental pitch of the Yell. The following plot shows the frequencies covered by this fundamental. In other words, this figure constitutes the most precise score of the Tarzan Yell.

 

Tarzan Yell melogram (fundamental pitch vs. time). Horizontal black lines mark one-tone frequency distances -musical notes correspondences at the right and their respective numerical values in Hertz at the left. Green lines for intermediate semitones.
Tarzan Yell melogram (fundamental pitch vs. time). Horizontal black lines mark one-tone frequency distances -musical notes correspondences at the right and their respective numerical values in Hertz at the left. Green lines for intermediate semitones.

Note the left-right axial symmetry of the blue curve of pitches, so that the sound of the first half is performed backwards in the second half. This kind of reversal is a sound-engineering technique that would be fully exploited in the 40's and 50's of the past century by the musicians of the Musique Concrète movement -note however that the Tarzan Yell was created in the early 30's. Indeed, there is a historical controversy on how the Yell was built and what its sources were -the prosposed alternatives include from Weissmuller's natural voice to a mix of animal/instrumental sounds. The symmetric plot above suggest a strong engineering intervention to shape the Yell.

 

As with the Flamenco melodies, a clean sinusoidal wave can be built from this melogram, being the result an absolutely recognizable Tarzan Yell without upper harmonics, this is, with no timbre:

 

 

What appears in any traditional 5-line musical score are the fundamentals of the sounds to be listened -the timbre is added when the score is assigned to a given instrument. In the same way, the score of the Tarzan Yell can be performed with different instruments. For example, the above curve could be applied to the pitch bend of MIDI sounds, so that you can get the Yell performed by a MIDI clarinet, flute and so on. Indeed, this is what I did to prove that a registrable score could be produced.

 

Finally, it seems that such score was not needed in the last moment to register the sound in Europe -as I was told by the lawyers of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. In any case, the MIDI sounds are still located in ERBzine, the official Edgar Rice Burroughs tribute site, under the lovely title of Francisco Camas comes to Tarzan's aid.