Sometimes, sound can behave so strangely


Photo Credit: Anthony Maragou

Have you ever considered the tonal sound of language as being an integral part to understanding that language? Dr. Diana Deutsch does work in the psychology of music, but what she has discovered about tone and pitch has a lot to do with the epistemology of language. Often we hear words spoken and we do not think much about it, so it passes in and out of our memory quite easily.

However, at other times, we hear words or a phrase in our mind over and over as though it was embedded there by some strange force. Have you ever gone through the day singing a song over and over in your head? That may be because it has a memorable sing-song quality to it or it has an unusually appealing sound, easy to remember because it fits into a rhythmic pattern in your mind. Language can behave similarly – and can have a sing-song cadence or musical attraction that loops continuously in our head. Some quotes are memorable, not just for the import of the message, but also because of the rhythmic appeal that lends itself to memorization. Think of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” or the urban staccato of Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool.”

By designing our communication with tone and pitch in mind we may be able to increase it’s recall. It is reported that someone once asked Charles Spurgeon, the esteemed and memorable English preacher of the 19th century, what made him so quotable. His response was that he read authors who were quotable! What Spurgeon may not have understood was that memorable speech has a certain form and sound, and by studying those speakers and writers he was able to replicate the qualities of memorable speech.

There is a reason our teachers wanted us to practice our speech before an audience and a singer tries out new songs on a small audience first. Words are best spoken, not written, and only when speaking can we hear the still small voice of the musical muse within each of us.

Listen to Radio Lab’s interview with Diana Deutsch and hear for yourself how sound sometimes behaves so strangely!

Photo Credit: Anthony Maragou