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

Two poems richer

Credit: See-Ming Lee

Credit: See-Ming Lee

I don’t know why I did it, other than because I wanted to, but I read a poem by William Carlos Williams to my economics class. I rationalized it because we were discussing economic policy during the Great Depression, and I remembered a poem by Williams, “To a Poor Old Woman,” and I just needed to share it that day. That reason was good enough, so I read it to them.

It did fit with the lecture, but what I wanted to accomplish was more than bring the Depression into view, I wanted to provide stark relief. And, I wanted to share some art. So, I told them about the poem, how Williams wrote it during the Depression, and how its simplicity allowed the reader to feel the goodness of a simple pleasure, by a simple woman. In my mind, it is simply a beautiful poem.

There is a hint that Williams is somewhat condescending to the poor old woman and her simplicity, but I think he more or less is just relating what he sees; he sees a poor old woman enjoying a cheap pleasure, a bag of plums, which is probably the greatest luxury she can afford.

The poem, like most poems, is best when read aloud, so I read it to my class. I saw that the students could smell and taste the plums too. It is a powerful poem. Its words evoke sights and sounds that can really be enjoyed.

One of my students liked the poem well enough that he went to the library and pulled a collection of Williams’ poems off the shelf. He read through them and liked some, didn’t like others.

But, I asked him If he found any poems he liked. And, he said that he did find two poems he liked. “Great,” I said, “you are now two poems richer.”

Don’t be troubled by a few missteps; no one bats a thousand all the time.

Photo Credit: See-Ming Lee, Plums at the NY Farmers’ Market, Creative Commons ASA License 3.0