Music and Language

By cjohnson | October 9, 2006 1:47 pm

Last night I heard a rather lovely program. It was on the NPR program called “Radio Lab”, and this one was all about music and language. You can hear the whole thing by listening to the archive at this link. Among my favourite things was the first piece, right at the beginning of the program, based upon the work of Diana Deutsch, who specializes in the psychology of music. They talk about (and play you a sample from) a time when she recorded a spoken phrase and “looped it”, so that it plays again and again. After a while of listening to this (I remember noticing this myself in other contexts), that spoken phrase actually takes on a musical characteristic! It is amazing how fast and sharp the transition is, actually. Go listen to the first part of the show to hear it yourself.

The most striking part is then to go back to the original sentence and and hear that spoken phrase in context. Once your brain has hooked itself on the idea that it is a sung phrase and not a spoken phrase, listening to the sentence is normal until you get to that phrase and then it sounds like she is bursting into song!

This opens up a very interesting discussion on the whole business of language and music, and their intersection. What is music, really? How context dependent is it?

Diana Deutsch has done some research on “tone languages”, for example – languages where what sounds to English speakers like single word actually takes on several different and often unrelated meanings depending upon the pitch/tone at which it is spoken. The example of Mandarin is given (which makes me reflect quite a bit on the bizarre misunderstandings I had from time to time in my walkabout last year in Taiwan – I like to try the language a bit, even if there is an alternative… this sometimes gets me into trouble), and it leads to fascinating insights when you couple it to music. She discovered, for example, that the speakers of tone language have a vastly greater number of people who have perfect absolute pitch as compared to people who speak non-tone languages. There are links to her work from the radio program’s website. There are also links to her collections of audio files of musical illusions, which put me in mind of the optical illusions discussion I blogged about not so long ago, and associated links.

There’s a lot more to the program. I found it fascinating overall. Have a listen.


  • Warren

    Does Chinese rap music sound any different from any other kind of Chinese music?

  • Ambitwistor

    In particular, listen to the segment from 1:30 to 3:30 if you want to hear the looped “music”.

  • conical flask

    for those who can’t be bothered: i can testify that there is an interesting effect.

  • Clifford

    LOL! -cvj

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  • Mike-2

    Wow! That’s amazing! Imagine what would happen if somebody somewhere somehow invented a whole genre of music around the idea of using loops and samples for a musical effect!

  • janko

    that’s something steve reich has used extensively in his music. Listen closely to the cd “city life”by him, and you’ll hear samples from human voices speaking interweaved through the music, and musical instruments playing along with the tunes they “speak”.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Drunk with Music, huh?

  • Mike

    Congratulations, Clifford. That’s awesome news!

  • Mike

    Oh, I forgot to ask. who’s the lucky girl?

  • PK

    I found the effect very strong on Steve Reich’s different trains.

  • Plato

    Sometimes if you had wanted to learn deeply, the way is paved for “such insertions” within our thinking. How music leads you into…? Sitting by the stream it is nice to ecourage “ideas” to flow?


    If you had thought of the “whiteboard idea of expression[blank slate]” it would most certainly seem such conducement to bringing the “essence of idea” from that deeper part of self, after all that reason? Then, what would could we learn, after all that learning?

    Inspirative attempts at writing perhaps as sounds/smells wafts through the air?

    As Plato, you must understand I am biased of course.:)

  • Lewis Perdue

    Does this suggest a novel way to teach language more effectively? I am in Warsaw, Poland doing television and other media interviews for the release of three of my books in Polish. I’ve been studying CD’s to learn conversational Polish (FAR harder than my studies of German, Grench, Italian, Spanish and Dutch) and yet I find I am picking this up by grasping “phrases” rather than individual words and grammar rules that were used when i studied those other languages.

    A phrase offers contextual hooks to remembering each piece … like a TUNE which can stick in your mind.

    Maybe a method for turning language into a song-like structure would help people learn better?

  • Paul Valletta

    Actually, the Universal Language should be Music?

    The very first communications were done by tonic pitch devise’s, the mouth as it evolved produced Whistle “noise”. This was developed by all things on Earth, Birds, Man, Dolphins, Whales..etc.

    Man developed Whistle as it interacted with Breathing process( think about it, breathing, wheezing whistle sound?)..Man mimic’s Birdsong, Man notices certain tonic pitch indused Birds to move towards Man.

    Man captures Bird, Man eats Bird, which proberbly occured on a sunday, and in great tradition, thus:

    I know, cause I was there!..been there, seen it done it 😉


  • Mary Cole

    Good to see you blogging on a musical theme!

  • Bob

    By combining the interesting work presented to us by Diana Deutsch here with the following two courses on linguism and music, one can further the appreciation of this study:

    There are people who can see particular colors when hearing a particular pitch of music. Much of this has to do with how the brain does cross- talking..Here is a good study:

    Children tend to pick up language by finding the music in the language..They mimic the meter first and find out about meaning when they offend someone or receive smiles in return.

    There is also a music to labor, our relationship with tools. One can hear frustration or contentment coming from the sounds in distant garages and workshops..The 4 count came into existence right around the time that building of railroads called for four workers to surround one spike as they fastened rail to ties. The three count came from the pulling of nets into shore. The two count came from small light hammering…I have lived my whole life from this perspective. Labor to me is a symphony. Tools are instruments.

    Even the pitch that a Harley Davidson motorcycle makes when it rides on the cam matches the brain waves of a number of humans, sending a resonance right up the spine. It is very addictive for those who match it.

    When I speak Manduran Chinese, what little I do speak, I do hit the tones precise since Primsler trained me that way.

    Once again, thank you Clifford.

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