Music and Language

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Some new research seems to indicate that the natural vowel formats used in language may inform our appreciation for music.

Despite the wide variety of sounds in different languages, and the even greater variety in people's voices, the formants of their vowels fall into narrow and defined ranges of frequencies. The first one always has a frequency of 200-1,000 Hz, while the second always lies between 800 and 3,000 Hz.

Ross analysed the formants of English vowels by asking 10 English speakers to read out thousands of different words and some longer monologues. Amazingly, she found that the ratio of the first two formants in English vowels tends to fall within one of the intervals of the chromatic scale.

When people say the 'o' sound in rod, the ratio between the first two formants corresponds to a major sixth - the interval between C and A. When they say the 'oo' sound in booed, the ratio matches a major third - the gap between C and E. Ross found that every two in three vowel sounds contain a hidden musical interval.

Her results didn't just apply to English either. Ross repeated her experiments with people who spoke Mandarin, a vastly different language where speakers use four different tones to change the meaning of each word.

Even so, Ross still found musical intervals within the formant ratios of Mandarin vowels. The distribution of the ratios was even similar - in both languages, an octave gap was most common, while minor sixth was fairly uncommon.

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This page contains a single entry by published on March 28, 2009 8:03 PM.

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