The Sciences

Music and Language

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonOct 9, 2006 5:47 PM

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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. -cvj

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