Return Home

Musical Illusions

Thursday, May 09, 2013 - 02:25 PM

Ready to hear some trippy stuff? Check out these audio illusions from Diana Deutsch (of Sometimes Behaves So Strangely fame). Explanations for each illusion are at the bottom the post. All the audio and explanations come from Diana Deutsch's Audio Illusions site, where you can check out her CDs for more brain-bending tracks. And let us know how it goes -- leave us a note in the comments section.

Chromatic Illusion

Ready to try this puppy out? Put your headphones on (you won't get the right effect if you listen through your laptop or computer speakers... unless you have external stereo speakers that you can separate and place on your left and right sides):

  • Do you hear higher tones in one ear and lower tones in the other ear?
  • What happens if switch your headphones to opposite ears while the pattern is playing?

Cambiata Illusion

This illusion works best with headphones, with the volume kind of soft:

  • Do you hear higher tones in one ear, and lower tones in the other?
  • Which ear hears higher tones?
  • Try flipping your headphones (so they're on different ears). What happens to the tones?

Phantom Words

To get the full effect, play this through some stereo loudspeakers -- they should be separated as much as possible, and placed in front of you with the left speaker to your left, and the right speaker to your right:

Mysterious Melody

Listen to this -- you know this song, but it's maddeningly unrecognizable. The notes and timing are all correct, but the octaves have been scrambled:


Chromatic Illusions:

Here's a brief explanation of what's probably going on in your ears:

When the pattern is played in stereo, many people hear a higher line that moves down an octave and up again, together with a lower line that moves up an octave and down again, with the two meeting in the middle. Yet when each channel is played separately, it is heard correctly as a series of tones that jump around in pitch ... When played through stereo headphones, righthanders again show a tendency to hear the higher tones on the right and the lower tones on the left, but lefthanders as a group are much more variable in terms of what they hear.

Read more, and take a look at the musical notation of what you think you're hearing, versus what's actually being played.

Cambiata Illusion:

Below is what most people hear, though not everybody (read more at Diana Deutsch's Audio Illusions):

Many people experience the illusion of a repeating higher melody in one ear, together with a repeating lower melody in the other ear. (Both these melodies are called 'cambiata figures'.). When the earphone positions are reversed, people often hear the same thing: The ear that had been hearing the higher melody continues to hear the higher melody, and the ear that had been hearing the lower melody continues to hear the lower melody. This produces the strange impression that the higher tones have migrated from one earphone to the other, and that the lower tones have migrated in the opposite direction. As another strange thing, righthanders are likely to hear the higher tones on the right and the lower tones on the left, regardless of how the earphones are positioned. But lefthanders as a group vary considerably in terms of where the higher and the lower tones appear to be coming from.

Phantom Words:

Some of the words and phrases people have heard while listening:

window, welcome, love me, run away, no brain, rainbow, raincoat, bueno, nombre, when oh when, mango, window pane, Broadway, Reno, melting, Rogaine

People tend to hear words related to what's on their mind -- according to Deutsch, if you're hungry or on a diet, you might hear words related to food. Other strange effects: you might hear the voices morphing into unusual accents, and you might hear words in another language if English isn't your first language.

Mysterious Melody Unscrambled

Give up trying to put your finger on the melody above? Here it is, demystified:


More in:

Comments [41]

Ul from CH

Indeed absolute pitch is a very interesting ability but i really do not understand the reason why Mrs. Diana Deutsch is obsessively busy with absolute pitch. The history of music answered to this phenomen long time ago. Wagner created the greatest and the most special operas which content all kind of tonal modulations and chord progressions. After Tristan & Isolde there was nothing remained to discover in tonal concept and contemorary classical music was forced to appear. Probably this is the reason why Mahler considere him as the greatest genius from the hostory of tonal classical music. Following Wagner Alban Berg did the same quality of work in atonal music but neither Wagner nor Berg had absolute pitch.I think she needs a TIME MACHINE for going back to times of J.S. Bach for founding a society with him for writing history of music one more time without composers with realtive pitch.

Oct. 30 2016 03:00 PM
Jay from Cambridge

The phantom word is skewed for Bostonians. She's clearly saying "Nowhere" as in "Noh Weah" albeit with a bit of a weird stress on the syllables. With some effort I was able to hear other words, but only briefly because she's not actually saying them... Bueno for some reason popped out, but there's no 'bee' sound in there. Also as a musician with respectable relative pitch, it wasn't so hard to get the mystery melody. The other effects were all wild, though. I'm a righty and they worked in the expected direction!

Dec. 04 2015 11:55 AM
Marc Palm from Seattle, WA

Just testing my own auditory memory here, was the piece of dissonant noise that was played at the Stravinsky segment (approx: 44:40) that Jad introduces created by Mike Patton (a master vocalist and noise musician)?

Nov. 18 2015 06:22 PM
Claude Girerd from Stockholm

At first heard "no way,no way" but when I listened with earphones and read each work that was listed, I could suddenly hear each one clearly. In fact, I soon realized that I could hear almost any word I was reading at the same time as I was listening. Interesting....

Nov. 18 2015 03:08 PM
Rivkah from Austin, TX

Not a single one of these worked the way the explanations described. I heard the full tones in both ears as they were played in each headphone without the illusion of "switching" or one being higher pitched than the other etc. I could accurately tell entirely what was playing in each ear when I tested by covering each headphone individually. I didn't hear any phantom words either. It just sounded like "noh waeh" repeated at variable timing in each R/L stream. Very strange! I'm now more curious what it says if you DON'T hear these audio-illusions!

I've never been prone to hearing only what I want to hear, so maybe there's some neurological wiring going on there that some people are less prone to expectations than others?

Nov. 14 2015 10:29 PM
Serena from Vancouver, BC

I am right handed and heard all the higher, stronger pitches on the left. In "Phantom Words" I heard "no way".

Nov. 13 2015 01:12 PM
Jane Taras Carlson from Story, WY

Regarding the 11/8/15 program on stress, the comment was made that that realizing that one's "heart isn't going to beat forever," evokes the same response as would be felt running away from Charles Manson etc.

I strongly disagree and suspect that I'm not unusual. I'm almost 73 years old and have realized for years that I have a limited number of heartbeats before death. I don't worry about it at all - it's something over which I have no absolute control, but some control in terms of living a healthful life, exercising etc. I worry more about not having an available quick-suicide medication, in case I should get dementia, incurable cancer etc. One might be Hitler/Eva Braun's hydrogen cyanide tablets. Have no idea where to get them. In any event, all the standard heart checks show I'm in excellent shape. If I found otherwise, well, so it goes.

Jane Taras Carlson

Nov. 08 2015 09:11 PM
Timothy from San Francisco

I'm conflicted: Yes, tone languages could theoretically help make people to be pitch perfect. Sure. But what about other tonal languages? Such as Swahili, Vietnamese, or Thai, which has 7 tones! I would want to hear this test done on speakers of those languages before supporting that theory.

Nov. 06 2015 04:08 PM

Great show! As a musician and a psychologist, I really enjoyed the stories you incorporated into the show.

Nov. 06 2015 04:30 AM
j d from Vermont

It sounded as if the 6 notes identified were a half tone off. Also the 36 note span allegedly octaves did not have the same notes on top as on bottom. Did anyone else notice this?

Nov. 04 2015 09:22 PM

Now let's repeat the age-old experiment of listening to Beatles songs backwards and interpret messages from the devil...

Nov. 04 2015 04:19 PM
IN from Minneapolis

One of the best Radiolab casts.

Nov. 02 2015 12:30 AM

In the phantom words, I hard "Mayday" and then "Help me." Which started to freak me out a bit, even though I knew it was an illusion: "Help Me Help Me Help Me Help Me Help Me." If it is based on context/experience, it IS Halloween and I DID just get back from a haunted house.

Nov. 01 2015 11:32 PM
Thomas Priest from Ogden, UT

In the piece about "The Rite of Spring," you failed to mention that the "riot" may have been caused by the choreography. I believe the music simply enhanced the unusual choreography the patrons saw at the premier. If the first performance was only the music, I imagine there would not have been such a reaction.

Nov. 01 2015 08:26 PM
Meridel from New Mexico

What is the Mysterious Melody? It's driving me crazy that I can't figure it out.

Nov. 01 2015 04:22 PM
Billy Congo from USA

I had a problem with listening to RadioLab. I really hated that there were multiple voices and repetitions and no space to breathe. I would listen to little bits of the show at a time, and now I can listen to entire shows. Music has always had a powerful effect on me. Classical music could make me cry. I had a moment of total rage while listening to Wilco's 'Summerteeth'. I still can't listen to that album.

Nov. 01 2015 01:13 PM

I also hear 'no way' through my computer speakers but with headphones it's clearly 'no where'. Very interesting!

Oct. 31 2015 01:43 PM
Kathi Mestayer from Williamsburg

Steven Pinker writes that we tend to create nonsense words based on raw acoustical data, rather than our expectations, context, or other higher-level cognition. Instead, he says that “A perceiver forced to rely on its expectations is at a severe disadvantage in a world that is unpredictable even under the best of circumstances. There is a reason to believe that human speech perception is, in fact, driven quite strongly by acoustics…our brains seem designed to squeeze every last drop of phonetic information out of the sound wave itself.” (The Language Instinct)
Here's an article I wrote about it (with his help):

Oct. 28 2015 03:44 PM
Mike Wilhelm from Detroit Michigan

In the phantom word sample, I heard the "no way" in the left channel, but a repeated "don't" in the right. The very weird thing about the "don't" was that it seemed to vary between quarter note duration and a triplet. I know it isn't in the sample, because I could make it do either by just expecting it. Like quarter-quarter-triplet-triplet-triplet-quarter-quarter-triplet-triplet-triplet. Or all triplets or any combination. So interesting.

Jun. 24 2014 05:13 PM
Sia Delacosta from Bloomington, Indiana

I started hearing "random random random", and I couldn't stop hearing it, which felt appropriate :)

Jun. 01 2013 12:31 PM
Tamara from Middlebury, VT

I can't believe the words that people are hearing. To me it is very clearly "no way" in both ears if you're listening with headphones, and "no way" and "no doubt" if you're listening on speakers. It's cool becuase if you really focus you can change how you hear the emphasis--it's a fun game for your ears!

May. 26 2013 06:05 PM
Jim Sibigtroth from Austin, TX born central Illinois

I am listening to "Musical Illusions" and it touches on a phenomenon that has been bothering me because I don't know what to call it but it seems like something that needs a word to describe it. The phrase in the podcast, "sometimes behave so strangely", strikes me as something that resembles the phrase from a popular old novelty song - "little old lady got mutilated late last night". After having heard these phrases a few times, it seems inconceivable to replace any one of the words with anything else. The collection becomes a unit that doesn't seem to want to be modified or rearranged.

May. 21 2013 07:22 PM
Kendall from Nagasaki, Japan

In the phantom words illusion, one can also hear the word "nonbei" (呑兵衛), the Japanese word for someone who drinks a lot, very clearly. I was a bit excited to hear it. Thoughts of language and music bubbled up in my head. And then I read the brief explanation!

May. 20 2013 01:18 AM
Victoria from Omaha

The musical artist Grimes is completely based on phantom words. It completely makes sense now. No wonder I love her music so much. I noticed when I would hear her unintelligible singing I would unconsciously make my own words and meanings for her songs. Also, the music steers your emotions to evoke a certain feeling. It makes them personal because it is from my personal thoughts.

Thank you for this revelation RadioLab! I absolutely love this article!

May. 17 2013 12:45 PM
Fred from Harlem

It's astonishing to see that this Jonah Lehrer segment was recycled for this episode. His work has been thoroughly discredited, but more importantly, his description of the Rite of Spring's premiere is absolutely ludicrous. It's the stuff of campfire stories told to entertain and horrify kids away from home for the first time.

There was no riot, not in a conventional sense, and certainly not in the way that Lehrer describes it. The disturbance in the theater was not a reaction to the music. It was a reaction to the choreography. This myth has been debunked so many times by so many scholars (not to mention Stravinsky in his own autobiography) that it is difficult to understand how it persists. At this point, the only people repeating this legend about Stravinsky's music causing people to riot are charlatans like Lehrer.

May. 14 2013 04:24 PM
Janet Boys from Philadelphia

I remember hearing about an academic boarding school (in France, I think) that emphasized music. Each morning every student had to try to sing an A (above middle C). When they could do it, they were asked to sing a different pitch. The object was to make them all have "perfect pitch". I think they were largely successful. So of course hearing more tones would support learning perfect pitch if it was not already there.

May. 12 2013 01:24 PM
Clement Cherlin from Indiana

Are you trying to drive your audience insane? I almost had to turn off the program because you WOULDN'T STOP REPEATING THAT ONE PHRASE. Earworms are bad enough without trying to create them intentionally.

May. 12 2013 10:57 AM
Michyl from LA

Is there a transcript for this show? I would like to get it. This was a great show.. and it would be helpful to me to be able to read along while listening..

May. 12 2013 08:27 AM
Mark Newstetter from San Francisco

I really enjoyed this program, but I was struck by the absence of any discussion on the subject of rhythm. The entire emphasis was on pitch. The very first example in the program of speech becoming music shows how important rhythm is due to the repetition of a spoken phrase.

The commentary overlooks the rhythmic structure of the phrase and focuses instead only on the melodic element. Likewise with the segment about the debut of the Rite of Spring. Certainly the rhythmic repetition of the chords was as much a factor as the tonality. In fact it was the "primitive" sounding rhythm of that piece which probably upset the original audience more than the dissonances because of the cultural chauvinism of the times. I dare say that the folks at Radiolab are showing their own cultural myopathy by forgetting about the profound importance of the beat in music and language — and the social implications.

Rhythm is as essential to music as melody and harmony. Perhaps this subject can be revisited by Radiolab with some discussion of how rhythm in language and music is as important as melody.

May. 11 2013 05:52 PM

While this was an extremely thought provoking feature on music and "noise", I am really surprised that the producers didn't acknowledge that all of their musical examples involved western music and what would be considered "dissonant" from that perspective. Or at least harmonies from the elite class of western music since the enlightenment. Indeed, many of the harmonies and melody lines used by Stravinsky were actually duplicative of what he heard "in the field" of Russia, in terms of the folk music and rhythms of his culture - far removed from the conservatory and the upper class that attended concerts at that time. There, peasants did not use regular meter, and consonant harmonies were not necessarily the norm. So class status and culture must be covered in this discussion. Also many nonwestern cultures use microtonalism and nonEuropean-based rhythms and harmonies. So to say that a minor second harmony would be unpleasing to the ear, certainly depends on where you come from on the planet, and is not as univieral a norm as the producers say. Listen to the traditional music of Turkey, for instance.

May. 11 2013 05:39 PM
Jessica from Rockland, MA

I was listening to WBUR from Boston, MA when I heard this radio lab segment. When I got home, I got on the computer to hear and learn more. I am a therapist and a musician and I found this segment to be very interesting! I frequently use music as a way for clients to relax, not only at home, but in the waiting room and during a session as well. I also recently realized that I have better pitch than I when I was younger. I sing in a choir and play woodwind instruments, mainly flute, and I can hear pitch better now than I ever did before. I can't say that I developed perfect pitch, as I can't name the note, but I have found that I can see a note in the music and have a better ability than previously to sing it correctly. This has also come as a surprise since abut 8 years ago I had to leave the choir because my pitch was off. Turns out it was because of a perforated ear drum. That I can now hear the pitch so much better goes to show the body and brain's ability to heal and reroute it's mechanisms.

I look forward to investigating the info from the guests you had on these topics today. Thank you for your presentation and the ability to learn more on your web site. I will be sure to tune in (the pun is intended) in the future.

May. 11 2013 05:08 PM
Steve from New Haven CT USA

Once you hear the Mysterious Melody unscrambled, return to the scrambled version and sing along. Fun!

May. 11 2013 04:41 PM

Didn't they even consult a linguist for this show? "Non-tonal" language do in fact utilize pitch, as they even say, regarding questions. The difference is that "tonal" language impart semantic significance with pitch, while "non-tonal" language such as English impart function significance with pitch. In both cases, pitch is required to communicate effectively, and pitch carries a great deal of the "load" for the languages.

May. 11 2013 04:08 PM
Charlotte from Montreal

Hi there. As a professional musician I can't help commenting on this mesmerizingly beautiful podcast.

First off, on the subject of perfect pitch: while it may seem pretty amazing to have it (I myself have often wished I could feel what it's like, even for a moment), it's not generally recognized as a particular advantage over other musicians. You don't find it as often as you'd think among performers. Composers and conductors, perhaps, but among performers it can sometimes even be an impediment. For instrumentalists (particularly brass players), their instruments often play in a different key, meaning the notes that come out are not the ones on the page. This would drive someone with perfect pitch INSANE! Also, for us singers, we are often called upon to sing pieces in different keys than written, or in the case of Baroque music, at different tuning (resulting in the notes being higher or lower than written). In these cases, I wouldn't want to have perfect pitch and have to deal with the discomfort it would cause. All this being said, I'm still fascinated by the colleagues I do meet who have it!

Secondly, regarding the brain's ability to adapt to new music: I am far from sad about it! My entire goal as a performer is to bring something meaningful to an audience, to expand their experience as human beings (and, hopefully, my own in the process). To be part of a process that contributes to the growth of our minds is kind of the whole point, and learning the science behind it only makes me even happier to know how it works!

Once again, brilliant and moving work, guys!

May. 11 2013 02:45 PM
Eric from Miami, FL

Great show! As a musician and a psychologist, I really enjoyed the stories you incorporated into the show. And it was great to hear Anne Fernald--my masters thesis was based on her work. Thanks for an amusing and informative hour of radio.

May. 11 2013 01:04 PM
Michael from NY

The Mysterious Melody is an excellent example of how people may have felt the first time they heard Rite Of Spring. It is painful to listen to a few times in rapid succession. Then listen to the original material and listen again to the octave scrambled version. Now it's kind of cool.

May. 11 2013 01:04 PM
Brad Scheller

Coolest to play them all at once

May. 11 2013 12:22 PM
Scott Garside from Woodinville, WA

I was waiting to hear if the explanation of the negative reaction to Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' premier could also explain the apparent opposite reaction to Erik Satie's Gymnopedie. These three piano studies, especially Debussy's orchestrated version, have a measurable physical reaction on the reduction of stress and heart rate. Heck, it even showed-up in Star Trek TNG when Picard took to his quarters to await the auto-destruct of the Enterprise! There is another line of study and another great story here.

Wonderful program!

May. 11 2013 05:42 AM

Hey Kristen, the audio seems to be working on our end -- could you email us at and give us a few more details so we can try to help?

May. 10 2013 01:19 PM

Very interested in the mysterious melody, but there does not appear to be any audio...

May. 10 2013 12:30 PM
jon-christian suggs from New York City

Fascinated by discussion of Mandarin as tonal language and early exposure by children, perfect pitch, absolute constancy of word reproduction, etc. Five years ago in Shanghai I attempted to cash two traveler's checks at my hotel. I countersigned one and got my money but when I had countersigned the second, the clerk, who had watched as I signed both checks, refused to accept it. Her reason: my second signature did not match that on the check or the signatures on the first check. I looked carefully and could see no difference. She insisted that I had not matched the authorizing signature and pointed to several variants that were invisible to me. I asked for another clerk and he agreed with the first clerk, that because I was unable to replicate perfectly the authenticating signature, they could not cash the check. Even when I pointed out that she had seen me sign both checks, the first clerk could not be satisfied. I asked for a sheet of paper and wrote my name several times asking her to pick one that matched; I failed every time. Finally, the manager and the guide assigned to my tour reached an agreement that the discrepancies would be overlooked this time and the hotel would take a chance. Later, my guide explained that many Chinese did not believe that Americans were unable to write their names the same way, every time. Their own schooling from an early age devoted much time to perfecting the brushwork that would produce the exact signature every time. Back in the States, I heard a similar story from a friend recently returned from Shanghai. Is it, then, possible, that this is an analogue for the tonal accuracy of Mandarin speakers?

May. 10 2013 09:36 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by