Toward Standardized Language

by Carl Strang

We have no standardized language to describe singing insect sounds. Such is needed, because different people use different words to describe the same song. We’re not lacking for words, in a sense we have too many.

The oblong-winged katydid’s song has been described in several different ways, for instance.

The oblong-winged katydid’s song has been described in several different ways, for instance.

Richard Alexander was the dean of singing insect research in the Great Lakes area before he retired from his post at the University of Michigan. Here are some of the words and phrases he used: “clear, whistle-like sound (crickets) or a ‘noise’ (buzz, click, rasp, whirr, rattle, etc.) (all groups except crickets).” Buzz, crackling, noise, rasping, lisp, “tick-buzz,” “whispery, intense buzzes,” sibilant buzz, smooth without vibrato, vibrato, whining buzz, rough buzz, trill, chirp, “tink” sound, phrase, ragged phrase, “zzzzzz-zik-zik”, seedy.

More recently, Elliott and Hershberger in their popular book on singing insects used a lot of quantitative language regarding frequency (pitch, the highness or lowness of sound), but also a lot of terms that remain undefined as far as I can see: chirp (“each chirp is actually a brief trill”), buzz, buzzy trill, note, “chirps (brief buzzes),” tick, “clicks or tsips,”, purr, clicking whirr, raspy notes, clicks or zits, shuffle, rattling, zeee-dik!, dzt!, lispy buzzing notes, swishing rattles, pulsating drone, whining drone.

In approaching this problem I like Alexander’s division of songs into two main categories, tones on the one hand (relatively clear, musical notes like those of a wind or stringed instrument, for instance a flute or a single violin note; such a sound has a very narrow frequency range) and more mechanical sounds on the other (resembling the sounds produced by percussion instruments such as rattles, drums, scrapers, clickers, or else a ticking watch; a wide range of frequencies is produced at once, so there is no single, clearly dominant tone).

Words connected to tones include: musical, chirp, trill, “tink,” note, whine, siren. Words connected to mechanical sounds include buzz, tick, click, rasp, whirr, rattle, noise, crackle, lisp, swish, and a variety of attempts to render the sounds into words (zick, zit, dzt, zee, dik, tsip, zzz). I am not sure what to do with “drone.” It usually is applied to cicada songs, some of which are more tone-like (canicularis) and some of which are more mechanical (linnei). Perhaps a drone is a third, somewhat intermediate category, with pulses that are too rapid to distinguish but each of which has a broad frequency range (I am not speaking of vibrato here, but the individual vibrations that make up the droning sound). The song of Roesel’s katydid qualifies as a drone, under this definition.

For the moment, I think there are six primary terms needed in describing insect songs. Each of these can be further qualified with descriptors.

A note is a separate, musical tone that can be very short (Allard’s or tinkling ground cricket), or long and continuous (four-spotted or black-horned tree cricket). Descriptors can specify the pitch, length, volume and tonal quality of the sound. Sonograph analysis reveals that a note is composed of pulses, but these usually are too rapid to be discerned by ear (though some of those tree cricket songs acquire a wavering quality at low temperatures).

A trill is a rapidly and evenly pulsing sound (the pulses slow enough to be discerned) that has a tone quality. The pulses seem connected, rather than having pauses, however brief, between them. A trill can be brief (jumping bush cricket) or extended (Say’s trig). A trill can be qualified in the same way as a note, with the addition of pulse rapidity, and pauses or interruptions that occur in some species.

A chirp is a brief bundle of rapid, irregular notes (spring and fall field crickets produce the most familiar example). Irregularity in the spacing, volume and/or length of the element notes separates a chirp from a trill. Chirps tend to be relatively brief.

A drone is the mechanical analog of a note, but I can think of no brief examples (the striped ground cricket and two-spotted tree cricket are possibilities, though I am more inclined to think of these as buzzes). The pulses or vibrations are too rapid to discern, though there may be vibrato. Examples include extended cicada songs like those of the dog day or Linne’s cicada, Carolina ground cricket, and Roesel’s katydid. Descriptors include volume, length, nature and abruptness of beginnings and endings, vibrato (which can be more legato or more staccato in its attack), pitch range, whether there is a rise and fall in pitch, and tonal quality.

A buzz is the mechanical analog of a trill, and like a trill its length can be short (the elements of a common true katydid song), intermediate (as in most meadow katydids) or extended (as in the rattler round-winged katydid). Here the descriptors include volume, length, abruptness of beginnings and endings, pitch range or center, pulse rate, and sound quality (e.g., rasping, lisping, rattling).

A tick is the briefest of mechanical sounds. Examples are found in the typical song of the greater angle-wing, and the series of brief sounds leading into the buzz of many meadow katydids. Volume, number, and, when they are produced in series, descriptions of the spacing and rapidity of ticks, help describe them.

A perfect system may not be possible. Not only do we have an excess of vocabulary, we also know that different people hear the same song differently, and so will use different words to describe it. I would greatly appreciate help with this, so please comment on what needs clarification or to express points of disagreement.



  1. Lisa Rainsong said,

    August 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    This is always such a challenge for exactly the reasons you stated. Our visual language is often more concrete and precise and seems to be considerably less subjective.

    I like “buzz” for the Roesel’s Katydid or Nebraska Conehead. I prefer something like “whirr” for Gladiator Meadow Katydids – it’s a softer, less penetrating sound. ( I wish so much that I could roll my “r”s, as that that would give me a closer approximation of that sound. If I could, the Black-legged Meadow Katydid would be “tick-a-tick purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”)

    When I am in the field with people who are also musicians, I use a more precise, shared, musical language that includes a song’s attack, decay, crescendo, decrescendo, and tone quality – exactly what you are doing with the cicadas. I very much like the idea of vibrato to separate some of the common cicadas – I use that description myself.

    I also try to convey many of these terms to people who aren’t necessarily musicians and have them try to imitate sound when possible. I would do that if I were teaching a music appreciation class – which, in a sense, I am! I don’t hesitate to imitate anything I can, because it does demonstrate the nature of the sound and hopefully encourages other people to try imitating these sounds themselves. The more they attempt to do so, the more likely they are to remember what they hear. Even when people can’t get the pitches, insects like the Oblong-winged Katydid have a rhythmic pattern they can imitate

    I so agree that insects like tree crickets are definitely “pitched” instruments because they are actually so much lower than the percussive katydids.

    I will be most interested to read about how your descriptions work for people, including participants on hikes or other programs.

    • natureinquiries said,

      August 5, 2013 at 6:13 am

      Thanks, Lisa, for your thoughtful response. I am thinking more of written descriptions than of working with people in the field, but will keep your suggestion in mind. Given people’s varying preferences, it may be best to recommend that people listen to recordings of each song, and then include as many descriptions as I can find, to help in learning to discriminate similar songs. My own preference for the black-leg is similar: tickety-buzzzz.

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