The Tantalizing Tale of Tarzan’s Trademarked Tones

The Tantalizing Tale of Tarzan’s Trademarked Tones

If you are ever lost in the jungle and you are about to give up hope, there is one sound that will instantly let you know that help is on the way. Tarzan’s call is one of the most recognizable sounds, ever since it first appeared in the 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape Man. It is so distinctive that it qualifies as a registered trademark. The story behind the sound is as interesting and elusive as the legendary Lord Greystoke, himself.

Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He made his first appeared in the novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. Since then, he has generated 25 sequels by Burroughs and countless representations by other authors in books, comic books, radio, television, and movies.

Tarzan’s famous yell was described by Burroughs as “the victory cry of the bull ape.” When it came time to film the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie Tarzan the Ape Man, the producers wanted that sound to be something unique and memorable. The origin of the distinctive cry is a matter of some debate. Some suggest that opera singer Lloyd Thomas Leech was the original voice. His family maintains he was the source, and there are recordings of his recollections of creating the Tarzan yell.

Newspaper columnist L. M. Boyd wrote that the distinctive sound was, “blended in with that voice are the growl of a dog, a trill sung by a soprano, a note played on a violin’s G string and the howl of a hyena recorded backward.” Bill Moyers wrote that it was created by combining the recordings of three men: one baritone, one tenor, and one hog caller from Arkansas. Often-repeated accounts say it is the sound of an Austrian yodel played backward at an accelerated rate.

Johnny Weissmuller was the actor who first cried out the jungle call. He insisted the yell was actually his own voice. Co-star Maureen O’Sullivan and Weissmuller’s son supported this claim. Regardless of the origin, when viewers saw the following scene, the call of the Lord of the Jungle was forever etched in Tarzan lore:

The sound itself is a registered trademark and service mark, owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued marks under registration numbers 2210506 (December 15, 1998), 3841800 (August 31, 2010), and 4462890 (January 7, 2014).

Although the Tarzan yell is almost-universally recognized, reducing it to words is a little more difficult. The way it is described for trademark registration purposes is:

The mark consists of the sound of the famous Tarzan yell. The mark is a yell consisting of a series of approximately ten sounds, alternating between the chest and falsetto registers of the voice, as follow –

  1. a semi-long sound in the chest register,
  2. a short sound up an interval of one octave plus a fifth from the preceding sound,
  3. a short sound down a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  4. a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  5. a long sound down one octave plus a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  6. a short sound up one octave from the preceding sound,
  7. a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  8. a short sound down a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  9. a short sound up a Major 3rd from the preceding sound,
  10. a long sound down an octave plus a fifth from the preceding sound.

Thanks to Australia, there is also a musical way to represent Tarzan’s call. Australia granted Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Trademark Number 1480175 on March 14, 2012. In addition to the textual description included in the U.S. trademark, the Australian version includes this musical representation:

Musical representation of Tarzan yell

Words and musical notes may work for trademark application purposes, but if you really want to accurately depict the sound visually, you’ll need something fancier. Scientist and musician Francisco Camas created a graphic representation of the cry:

Tarzan yell graphic

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. Source: Francisco Camas:

Camas wades into the controversy about the creation of the sound. He writes, “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.”

Regardless of its origin, and no matter how you write, play, or draw it, Tarzan’s cry has earned a lasting place in our history and culture. Those in the jungle and the movie theaters hear the distinctive sound and know they are in the presence of the Lord of the Jungle.

Read more fun facts about trademarks.

Read more fun facts about sounds.

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