Music and Language


Various STFT spectrograms for the mathematical analysis of sound

Via cosmicvariance (Clifford) I found this very nice podcast by at New Yorks public radio WNYC.

The guest in this podcast is Diana Deutsch – Professor of Music Psychology at UC San Diego. Diana Deutsch conducts research on perception and memory for sounds, particularly music. She has discovered a number of musical illusions and paradoxes, like Phantom words:

The brain is constantly attempting to find meaning in things, even where there is no meaning. This can often lead us to experience illusions. Just as, when we look into a cloudy sky, we may see strange faces and figures, so when presented with ambiguous sounds, we may hear words and phrases that are not really there.

In the podcast she speaks among others (mostly in the beginning) about the “song”- illusion of a repeated phrase like “But They Sometimes Behave So Strangely”. This illusion is created by taking a spoken phrase, looping it and replaying it several times. The brain starts to focus on the pitch of the spoken words in the loop and – as Clifford pointed out – the brain focuses in a different context, so that the phrase suddenly sounds like music — i.e. speech suddenly laps into a song.

Of course this lets one think immediately of rapping – would actually be fun to hear these “looped speech” experiments wrenched out in a rap song.

Diana Deutsch mentions Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Steve Reich, and Jean-Claude Risset studying the relations of speech and music. This reminded me also of Janáček who focused on reproducing the rhythm and the pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech. I think to remember that there exists even a piece which is based on the recordings of a one hour Czech politicians speech (!) – but I couldn’t find it. However it is said that Janacek didnt like the german and austrian cultural influence on Czech culture and that he didn’t like Beethoven, so may be its better not to know what the politicians speech was about….

In an essay about music Janáček wrote:

”I had been listening to the speech of passers-by, reading the expressions on their faces, following with my eye every raised voice. . . . How many variations of melody could be found for the same word! Here it shone and dissolved, there it hardened and pierced the skin. But I suspected in these melodies something far deeper still. . . . There were lines of inner growth, kept secret. . …”

(found here)

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