As a former third chair cornet player in my high school band, and current owner of a trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano trumpet, cornet and pocket trumpet, I’ve always dreamed about being able to really wail, like my idol Chet Baker or maybe George Finola, the New Orleans musician who billed himself as “The World’s Greatest Cornet Player.”
Alas it just was never in the cards. The other day, however, I was thinking about a song and I automatically lapsed into my extremely poor imitation of a trumpet playing. Jim, a friend of mine from Florida, once told me that every trumpet player he’s ever known has a way of mimicking the sound of a trumpet. Since then I’ve wondered if the quality of this imitation is, in anyway, connected to having musical ability. If so, it would explain a lot.
Devices other than musical instruments can also be described by the sounds they make. The writtensound.com website defines the phrase “potato-potato-potato” (emphasizing the ‘p’ and ‘t’) as the “sound of a poorly running motorcycle engine.” Evidently this phrase is widely used in Britain among motorcycle riders, usually in a manner derisive to novice riders. Speech sounds are often used to express contempt or scorn.
One of my favorite parts of NPR’s “Car Talk” radio show is when hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi embarrass their callers by asking them to imitate the weird sounds their cars make in order to assist in diagnosing the problem. There is even a “Car Noise Emporium” on the Car Talk.com website, where you can listen to nearly four dozen car noises and then read about the actual mechanical problem associated with each one. For example, “booooooorrrrththth” indicates an exhaust leak, “geerogherrrr, geerogherrr” means you have grinding brakes, but if you hear “!@#$%^! !@#$!@! !@#$!@#!” coming from the rear of your car, they say don’t worry, that’s just grandma.