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Musical Language

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Learning to play piano Learning to play piano (Victor Bezrukov/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this hour of Radiolab, we examine the line between language and music.

What is music? Why does it move us? How does the brain process sound, and why are some people better at it than others?

We re-imagine the disastrous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 through the lens of modern neurology, and we meet a composer who uses computers to capture the musical DNA of dead composers in order to create new work.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the dates of two performances of “Rite of Spring” and the time that passed between them. The performance that inspired rioting occurred on May 29th, 1913. The second performance that we discussed occurred in April of 1914. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the “Rite of Spring” was used in the movie “Fantasia” during the part that featured mushrooms. It was in fact used during the part that featured dinosaurs. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.


David Cope, Diana Deutsch, Anne Fernald and Jonah Lehrer

Behaves So Strangely

We'll kick off the chase with Diana Deutsch, a professor specializing in the Psychology of Music, who could extract song out even the most monotonous of drones. (Think Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. Bueller.)

For those of us who have trouble staying in tune when we sing, Deutsch ...

Comments [50]

Sound As Touch

Anne Fernald explains our need to goochie-goochie-goo at every baby we meet, and absolves us of our guilt. This kind of talk, dubbed motherese, is an instict that crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries. Caecilius was goochie-goochie-gooing in Rome; Grunt was goochie-gooing in the caves. We at Radiolab did our own ...

Comments [35]

Musical DNA

Which came first: Language or Music? We're still not sure, but now we'll ponder what comes next. Producer Jonathan Mitchell brings us a piece about David Cope, the composer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, who cured his artist’s block by writing a computer program to do the dirtywork for ...

Comments [20]

Comments [110]

Lanzaro from Berlin


What a great radio show!

Radio, has hope!

Nov. 04 2015 04:12 AM
Lars Pardo from seattle

what a fascinating program - but music is the universal language - it has the power to transcend species - I wish you'd do a follow-up using sound to communicate w/ say dogs or as Paul Horn did many years ago, playing his flute to a killer whale.
Great stuff - thanks

Nov. 03 2015 03:29 AM
jh from cape cod

I find the comments on the Rite of Spring interesting. I grew up in a home that often played concert music with the three B's and many others. My first listening of the piece caused me to hate it but it has since become a beloved piece. I am agree with the show that finding the melody took me some time. However, I do wonder about how Top 40 radio makes us like songs due to their familiarity.

Nov. 02 2015 10:13 PM
Tony Jones from Los Angeles

My comments about the Rite of Spring segment has been repeated previously by many others. I am a composer that studied with a personal friend and colleague of Stravinsky. From all accounts the "riot" was not so much about the dissonance of Igor's music but the choreography of Nijinsky. Obviously, Stravinsky's second performance in Paris was a success because it was performed without the choreography. You didn't mention that point. There were factions that opposed Nijinsky's work previously with Debussy's ballet, Jeux. Most of these points are described in an article by the BBC All in all I did enjoy the rest of the show. Being a musician, I was particularly intrigued about the Asian culture and language being a jump start to appreciating musical language.

Nov. 02 2015 01:56 PM

I am extremely fascinated by this show as I have an odd relationship to "The Rite of Spring", as a life long insomniac I somehow recently began listening to the marvelous "BBC Proms" version on YouTube that purports to use the original instruments. If my busy mind will not shut down, I put on my earphones and listen to the full composition as I lay down to sleep. Its beautiful dissonance seems to counter act my thoughts and replace them. It works better than white noise and is somehow deeply soothing when it should be disquieting. Perhaps it works like stimulants on the ADHD part of my brain. I'd love to find out what a professional thinks of this effect and if it might work for anyone else. I did study music as a child but wasn't very good at playing. But being surrounded by musical instruments still has a wonderful effect on me.

Nov. 01 2015 10:50 PM
Harry Haller from Philadelphia, PA, USA

Despite my prior comment, I thought this was a good show overall.

Nov. 01 2015 03:15 PM
Harry Haller from Philadelphia, PA, USA

So many comments that are motivated by truly astonishing oversimplification, misinterpretation and/or demonstrable error on the part of RadioLab's researchers, writers and/or interview subjects...and yet so few actually get it right themselves. In this context, I hesitate to post a critical comment--but this is one I think stands on firm ground:

If one is to liken hearing to touch, because nerves respond to molecules making contact with a bodily organ, then smell and taste also are analogous to touch. At least one previous comment already pointed this out, but that listener lost his or her credibility by including sight with the rest. Photons are not molecules. The skin can sense light, but only in the infrared frequency range (heat), and I wouldn't call heat "touch".

In any case, what is the point of making this (these) analogy (analogies)? Are smell and taste less able to evoke an emotional response? Even if they are, the way we experience each of these senses is completely different, despite any similarity among the physical mechanisms that generate the sensation.

In short, the "insight" that sound is a kind of touch doesn't really mean anything. Much like so many TED talks (and consultants), this part of the show uses semantic and conceptual connections to dazzle listeners with what sounds like an astounding revelation, but in fact is completely empty.

Nov. 01 2015 02:24 PM
Mauro from Italy

Compliments for the show.
I really liked the part where a looped sentence becomes a melody.
And also the story of neurons looking for patterns is quite interesting. I am pretty sure that these neurons that are trying to figure it all out are not just dealing with sound and music but also with every other aspect of our perception. And it’s them that give our species an edge, an evolutionary advantage, because finding a pattern, a rule, an explanation is the first step to power.

Keep up the good work
Mauro, from Italy

Nov. 01 2015 06:02 AM
Gil Gross from Novato

Oh dear. I love Radiolab, but the music episode was a sorry mess of really shoddy research or the extreme lack thereof. The riot at Le Sacre's premiere was over the choreography danced as Stravinsky described it by"knock kneed Lolitas" with Nijinsky calling out time "One two three FOUR five six from backstage loudly enough to be heard over the orchestra. As others have pointed out the score played in Paris just a year later as a concert version and Stravinsky was carried out at the end on the shoulders of cheering admirers. It had already played in Russia and quickly premiered around the world and has never been out of the repertoire. The "plasticity" theory in this case is ridiculous. Until the LP really brought the score into everyone's homes four decades later, most people hearing it in concert were hearing it for the first time, except for the excerpt in Fantasia, so other than a few orchestral musicians no one's brain had been made plastic on repeated hearings. In short, the whole thing, though delightfully presented as always, was pretty much bilge. As I said I love Radiolab, but this was quite the misfire.

Oct. 31 2015 06:49 PM
Mark Newstetter from San

Again, this episode has some interesting observations about the science of music and pitch. But I suppose no one involved with this show is concerned that the segment about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is just pure nonsense. The historical record clearly refutes the theory presented in this program. The riot at the first performance of the Rite of Spring was a planned disruption and not a spontaneous reaction to the music's dissonance. Certainly there were people who did not like the music, but there is no real basis to conclude that it was so troubling that an otherwise peaceful audience would break out into fistfights.

Instigators were planted in the audience to start fights. Stravinsky and, perhaps eve more to the point, Nijinsky, had enemies in the community who wanted the production to fail because they thought it was degrading art.

You are doing a disservice to your listeners to keep rebroadcasting this segment. Such pseudoscience damages the reputation of your program.

I believe the producers of Radiolab want their efforts to enrich the minds of their listeners, so why not correct your errors when you are made aware of the?

Oct. 31 2015 04:21 PM
Michael C from Cambridge, MA

Radio Lab badly misleads its audience when it claims to explain the riot which occurred at the premiere of Rite of Spring as a product of the music's effects, neurologically or specifically musically cultural. A great deal was going on in Paris in 1913 as artists attempted to épater la bourgeoisie.

The Rite of Spring 1913: Why did it provoke a riot?
[It] caused an outrage on its premiere in Paris a century ago. But was it the music or the dance?
Ivan Hewett, Classical Music Critic

Radiolab focuses solely on the music, but it was as much if not more the deliberately graceless and mechanical dance choreographed by Nijinsky which outraged; and the audience in fact anticipated a scandal and highly probable that Ballets Russes' impresario Diaghilev desired one!

Also Radio compares the premiere (of the ballet & music) to a straight concert a year later; and there had been a half dozen more performances of the Rite in the meantime.

For a more detailed and responsible report, see also Wikipedia:

Oct. 31 2015 04:14 PM

after listening to how music is heard, I am curious in how to use this with information with Alzheimer's patients in determining their pleasure and connecting to sound.

Oct. 31 2015 02:55 PM
bill from Newark

"Some people like that stuff"
Hilarious. Awesome attitude. And some people like music that comes pre-approved by the elitist culture.

Oct. 31 2015 12:50 PM
bill from Newark

"Some people like that stuff"
Hilarious. Awesome attitude. And some people like music that comes pre-approved by the elitist culture.

Oct. 31 2015 12:49 PM
Frances Trotta from silver city Nm

and....talking to one's dog can also sound exactly like the universal baby talk least it's what mine sounds like when communicating with my"Jack"!

Oct. 29 2015 08:14 PM
Mark Goodall from Indiana

If you enjoyed this program, you might want to read the Oliver Sacks book "Musicophilia". In the chapter on absolute (perfect) pitch, it's suggested that infants learning a tonal language haven't had their natural ability to discern pitch erased or reprogrammed by the necessity to ignore pitch when learning a non-tonal language such as English. I have decent relative pitch, and just a glimmer of absolute (when tuning the first string of a guitar from slack, something in my head says "stop". Usually I'm within 25 cents). Also pointed out, comparing pitch to color perception, if you showed me something red and asked its color, you'd have to show me another color (say, green) and tell me "this is green, now what color is the other thing?" and my brain would measure the (relative) distance between green and red and say "Red!" I wish I had absolute pitch like red is red, without need for comparison.

Oct. 29 2015 10:02 AM
Andoni from Guadalajara

I am such a fan now!


Oct. 05 2015 05:34 PM
Dave from California

If the Chinese are so much better at identifying pitch, then where's all the great music? And why aren't they sharing, if music makes you smarter? I can't recall a single song known worldwide that's of recent Chinese origin. Zilch.
Also, in the early segment the translation from speech-to-pitch was quite off; she applied a major-key resolve to an end note that doesn't really resolve - it slides down in pitch well below a major-key root. The mode was all wrong as a result. Loop studies can be revelatory, but she's not experienced enough with it to be an authority about it, unfortunately.

Sep. 19 2015 03:50 AM
Brizzy from jacksonville,FL

what are they saying i cant understand them

Jan. 28 2015 10:37 AM
Gavin from UK

I was so thrilled by the theory by Diana Deutsch that I wanted to do an experiment with it, however when I came to tonal language I hit an immediate hurdle when I asked someone for their input. It may have been pointed out already but I'll explain anyway: All I did was say a friends name and he knew straight away that I wanted something by the tone that I had used. I thought about this for a while and realised that spoken English doesn't have the mixed meaning of the same word separated by tone, but it does have certain tonal precursors as to our direction of conversation.

Jan. 28 2015 01:32 AM
Mohamud Abdi Aziiz from somalia


Aug. 07 2014 09:40 AM
Marko from Croatia

I think the music program gives us a way to feel the program and find the beauty in it just like people find beauty in everything. It's like that white Malyevich painting. Also, the phrases come from humans.

Jul. 22 2014 02:48 PM

I'm adding my voice to the people who liked this segment. Kudos! Radiolab always presents so many new and interesting ideas.

I strongly disagree with the people who have picked this segment to pieces in the comments thread. Please remember; the Radiolab producers are not music experts (nor are they experts in any of the multitude of topics they have covered). That is why they bring in outside sources. Moreover, the point is to introduce new ideas for discussion. Thus, I entertain the notion that there are many explanations for the various phenomena they have discussed, and reject the idea that those explanations must be mutually exclusive (as in the cause of the Rite of Spring riots).

A side note: as a college-educated musician with perfect pitch, it saddens me that I feel the need to hide that fact from other musicians. To put it simply, "perfect pitch" (i.e. absolute pitch) and "musicality" are separate abilities. I have both. I still had to work to develop my 'relative' ear, but I have no trouble singing in tune with a choir (even as their overall pitch slowly drops).

Jul. 08 2014 11:40 AM
Jared from Milwaukee/NYC

As soon as she started the loop I imagined it being a sample in a rap song immediately...

Jun. 29 2014 01:10 PM
Jodi from Mount Rainier, MD

Great show. Who was playing cello for the segment with Jonah Lehrer?

Jun. 23 2014 07:54 PM
Amy from Rochester, NY

Fascinating interview with Dr. Deutsch -- and thoughtful hypothesis about language, music, and perfect pitch. Thank you!

Jun. 22 2014 08:22 PM

Love you guys, always will. You said "literally" too many times unnecessarily though haha. I challenge you to produce your next episode "literally" free.

Jun. 22 2014 07:57 PM
Eva MccCollaum from New Mexico

All senses are the sense of touch. They all involve physical contact with the world in some form, even sight, though through light waves. Smell and taste though chemical involve physical contact. In a way, the sense of touch is our only sense.

Jun. 22 2014 07:43 PM
joel mabus from Michigan

Though this is, I gather, an older episode or radio lab, it was new to me as I drove home from a gig the other night.

Yes, I am a musician, so the topic was intriguing to me. I was once a subject of a linguistic study of how musicians "heard" tonal languages differently than the rest of English speakers.

So I listened closely to your show.

Unfortunately you are one of the many radio programs that seem to think that ambient synthesized music under your spoken word makes the program more exciting and fresh. Like having a disco drumbeat under the weather forecast or a screaming rock band during the traffic report. I HATE that.

And so you played examples of Asian tonal languages making some fine distinctions in pitch and inflection WHILE covering those tones with swooping riffs on your synthesizer. You ruined the very thing you were showcasing.

Then you went on to parrot the non-sense most non-musicians believe about perfect pitch. When the Stravinsky and the minor second pseudo musical theory came on, my radio switched to the OFF position. If you redeemed yourself in the second half of the show, I will never know.

I have heard your program on other topics and I had had a generally positive attitude about your level of knowledge and fact-gathering. But now that you have mutilated a subject I have actual real-world knowledge of, I will be skeptical of anything you present in the future.

Jun. 22 2014 07:17 PM
Renee Downing from Tucson, Arizona

I adore your show and occasionally make a contribution to WNYC to support it. I do have one complaint. (But of course.) I urge you to rewrap your repeat shows with very brief introductions that identify them as rebroadcasts and say when they were first presented, ala Fresh Air, This American Life and Prairie Home Companion. My local station (KUAZ/KUAT) promotes ALL its NPR/PBS reruns as if they were brand new, which leads to disappointment and, worse, anachronism. When I tune into or download something that I think is new then realize after a few moments that I heard it years ago it feels like a bait and switch. It also makes me suspect that public broadcasting in general thinks its audience all has Alzheimer's. (As much of it probably has. In any case, the University of Arizona just slashed my local stations' funding. For good reason, IMHO.) Your shows are always worth listening to again, but are not precisely evergreen. Today's rerun on music, for example, says that Proust Was A Neuroscientist is forthcoming, and of course it's been out for years. Please consider this suggestion - I think it would be a real service to your listeners. Thanks!

Jun. 22 2014 05:43 PM
Margaret NAhmias

I couldn't if the and brain ability to overcome dissonance could have some effect on developing listening skills in foreign language.When you first hear one it is like a jumble and then your brain gets used it I wonder if those processing neurons have something to do with it.

Jun. 22 2014 03:45 PM
Sophia Oggi

Funny you should mention random car horns. I don't understand why I am the only person I've met that is regularly intensely bothered by the sound of random car horns. Car horns don't bother me so much when they are used on the road, to alert people. It really bothers me when people honk their horns when they lock their car doors. Some people make even more annoying and dissonant electronic noises when lock their car doors. They do this late at night! In residential areas! Parked directly in front of hotel room windows! When I have a headache! When I'm reading silently, when I am taking a nap!
I felt less alone living in Germany last year; I don't recall hearing the car-lock sound even once in three months there. Nearly all the cars had electronic locking systems, but none of them made an electronic or car horn sound.
Am I truly alone here in the US? In some US counties unnecessary horn-honking is illegal. Are these type of laws observed anywhere in the US? Or does the car-lock honk not count?

Jun. 22 2014 01:19 PM
Jake from Bradenton, FL

I believe, just as those little neurons can learn to enjoy new sounds such as the dissonant Stravinsky chords, they also learn to listen and hear at different volume levels. To prove this, for a period of time, whenever I watched anything on the television or listened to the radio, I would lower the volume slightly every minute or so. In time, I found that I enjoyed listening at significantly lower volumes while still able to hear and comprehend every spoken word, every melody. I find it has also enhanced my ability to focus.

Jun. 22 2014 12:06 PM

As usual My aural sensors are enhanced by Radiolab. Mahalo! Always something to think about. I am, in my own feeble way, trying to learn some Chinese and some Japanese and hopefully some Korean. living in Hawaii it is so relevant. Understanding the different pitch levels and the sophistication a Chinese person grows up with I can more easily accept my fumbling....

Jun. 22 2014 05:17 AM
brian from intellectual space

I have listened three times and I'm still hearing new things; which reminded me in part about what I love about Shakespeare. .

Jun. 21 2014 11:02 PM

I liked this show. I love the rite of spring, I think of it as the first heavy metal song and the riot was first mosh pit.The thing with dissonance is that it can relieve stress, like when you bang your finger and you say FAAACK! You feel better with a few expletives. It is known that moaning helps relieve pain. It's all the same: Punk Rock, Charley Parker, Stravinsky, Andy Worhal, roller coasters -they all rock us; they are the danger in the jungle that we can visit without getting hurt (and we always win.) I would love to hear a show on Stockhausen (you might have already -I'll check.)

Jun. 21 2014 05:21 PM
David B from Sacramento, CA

does anyone know where I can download those transposed instrumental versions of the four melodies of baby-talk? I'd be interested to get my hands on those sounds, I think they'd make interesting notifications for my phone (and as a soundtrack for a video project.

Jun. 21 2014 04:55 PM
Carol Douglass from san francisco

I'm afraid that although I enjoy Radiolab, this program about music and language and perfect pitch and Stravinsky was disappointing in that it was historically inaccurate, and came to some unsupported and rather superficial conclusions. For example, the idea of "perfect pitch." I've been immersed in music since the age of 6, have a master's degree in music, have sung and performed in choral groups for decades. I've not observed that having perfect pitch has anything much to do with a person's musical talent. Certainly not in choral music. What is important is having a well-developed relative pitch. A singer who is, for example, an alto, must be able to tune his or her singing to the chord being sung by the soprano, tenor, bass voices around her. I, personally, have met not one person who could precisely name any random pitch out of chordal context, although since musicians seem to think perfect pitch makes them better musicians, some claim to have perfect pitch. You could have perfect pitch and still sing completely out of tune with the rest of the choir if you sing what you know is an A-flat, say, when the rest of the choir has begun the piece a quarter-tone off the pitch, requiring that every singer sing in perfect relative pitch, not "perfect pitch." (No one in the audience would even notice unless they have a pitch pipe with them and are sounding it.) It's a matter of keeping your voice at the correct intervals relative to the rest of the voices. For example, if the interval to be performed is written as a major third, then you need to sing a major third, even if you think that the choir is off by a bit.
As for the riot at the 1913 premier of Rite of Spring (one of my favorite orchestral works of all time; listen to the timpani when it boils up out of a long silence! It's thrilling!), as other comments have pointed out, riots at musical events were nothing new. Beethoven's audiences rioted, as did audiences for other composers. For one thing, audiences used to be far more interested in what was going on in music, not to mention noisier than today's audiences. It's relatively recent that audiences are expected to be quiet during performances. (Candy-unwrapping, plastic-bag-rustling, cell-phone-using, talking audience members notwithstanding.)

Jun. 21 2014 04:54 PM
Mark Newstetter from San Francisco

I generally like this series, but it's really a disservice to your listeners to promulgate the myth that there was something in the dissonance of the music of The Rite of Spring which brought on the spontaneous outbreak of rioting in the audience. As others in this thread have pointed out, there is plenty of documentation that the disruption was planned by enemies of Stravinsky and also enemies of Nijinsky who's choreography was considered sexually and culturally depraved by not just a few ballet lovers at the time.

This episode assumes a premise and completely ignores the facts. Certainly there may be some neurological science around the way people spontaneously react to dissonant music, but the facts of The Rite of Spring riot are not consistent with the pretense laid out here. Mis-information is not good science.

I'm saddened that - for a program purporting to be informative and educational - Radiolab choses to rebroadcast this segment. It should be scrapped. Is it entertaining? Yes. Is it accurate? Not at all.

Jun. 21 2014 03:59 PM
Margaret Murata from Irvine, CA

I'm leaving this comment without having read through what has already been posted. The Stravinsky segment about "dissonant," non-metrical music and brain plasticity was half-crocked. The "riot" at the premiere was a reaction (in part pre-prepared) to more than the orchestral score. The radio lab version was a poor paraphrase of several non-eyewitness anecdotes. The "lesson," however, of the radio lab story was that human ears (and brains) modified themselves in the time between the premiere and the presentation of the Rite and Spring as orchestral concert music, and then yet again by the 1930s when a small segment was selected for the Disney animated film Fantasia, as if exposure to music were similar to exposure to chemicals in the atmosphere.
The presumed parallels of this Stravinsky "demonstration" to Diana Deutsch's hypothesis that infant learning of tone-based languages like Chinese may lead individual ears to acquire more absolute musical pitch were fuzzy and specious.

Jun. 21 2014 11:59 AM
David J. Clarke from Seattle

I'll start with saying I find the show so compelling that it is the primary the reason I fund my local NPR station...but the last half of the show tonight was bad science and even worse history. The riot in Paris was in fact not exceptional, and it happened with the very type of music, (lush Wagner & Strauss), that the show referred to as normal, (not challenging the neurons). For a reference, see, (and consider interviewing), Alex Ross. He covers this and more in "The Rest Is Noise". Not only was it not exceptional to have occurred, (half by most accounts, of the audience felt the music so disruptive to their sensibilities that they rioted. The other half were listening attentively but rioted against the rioters. The details are the problem here and they were avoided, all at the expense of loosely applying the alleged plasticity of the brain. It would be nice to believe that a contemporary theory of brain behavior could explain the event, but in fact, history is contingent, disruptive and escapes such broad attempts at explanation. The sound effects for the neurons were too humanizing, ascribing personality like traits to synaptic transmission. In short, it was bad science used in the name of biological reductionism. I expect bad science from Luminosity since they are trying to make money, but not from Radiolab.

Jun. 21 2014 03:47 AM
Seth Wittner

Excellent show. I worked in music professionally for 20 years and remain a musical person. I went into medicine (as a physician assistant) and worked in EARS, Nose and Throat.

I've read that we all have to learn to "feel" the musical language of our culture. If a Chinese person with no history of exposure to American music were to listen to music Americans find "sad," they wouldn't get it.....until they had learned the language and conventions of American/Western music.

Jun. 20 2014 03:25 PM

I recently had an experience with my brother. He was observing beksinski art, and listening to this horrible drone music. I asked myself, "how the hell does he enjoy this?" So I watched the picture and listened to the music and tried to find a rationalization for why he likes it, and BOOM, it was an amazing experience.

Beksinski art combined with the song "36 - memories in widescreen."

May. 10 2014 02:54 PM
ladane from New York

Great episode, I made a transcript of it, can I post it?

Feb. 16 2014 09:11 PM

Quite apart from the fact that there was no riot at the premiere of the rite, it was also not really particularly dissonant for the time. This was five years after Elektra, six years after Schoenberg's second string quartet.

Nov. 14 2013 03:22 PM

well, I guess " help me Obi Wan Ken Obi, You're my only hope" is ultimate loop of our lifetime.

Nov. 05 2013 11:40 PM
Nicholas from District of Columbia

He says that before the Rite of Spring the audience had never heard anything so ferocious, so dissonant or so unpredictable as this. What about Ludwig Van? Symphony 6? I am wondering if the riot would never have broken out if it were the orchestra alone. Great show!

Oct. 27 2013 09:29 PM
Margaret Stitzel from Lugano, Switzerland

I hope audiences (and commenters) keep an open mind about this episode. While it doesn't conform to the widely-accepted view of Stravinsky's concert, it opens up so much for discussion. Isn't that why part of why Radiolab is so wonderful? That it leaves space for us to think?

Sep. 28 2013 11:37 AM

I agree with the comment that this episode is disappointing. How can you be sound specialist and NEVER have thought about language as music - or know about tonal languages? This episode makes me doubt anything else you publish.

Sep. 23 2013 12:43 PM


Sep. 23 2013 12:42 PM
Bernd Willimek from Bretten, Germany

In addition to my last post, I am announcing that the English translation of our work "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" is now published:
Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration
You can get it free at the link:
Bernd Willimek

Aug. 18 2013 10:16 AM
Carole C. from New York

You mistakenly said Dr. Diana Deutsch was a professor at University of San Diego. She's not. She is actually a professor at University of California at San Diego, which is a different school.

May. 19 2013 02:20 PM
bret harold hart from Eden, NC

As a long time improvisor, maker of "Frankenstein-ed homemade instruments", and at Day 29 of a year-long commitment to recording a new piece of music daily for a year (365 Howls), this program is having a large effect on me and, well... sort of makes me want to apologize in advance to some friends/followers of this project and of folks who've come to one of my gigs these 40 years, for some of the severe air movement that I've imposed on 'em. Hoping your cilia have recovered.

May. 12 2013 03:07 PM
Richard from Salt Lake City

Radiolab is always really good, but this episode was particularly exceptional. I would love to see more research concerning the musical patterns in our spoken language. It's certainly not just in babytalk. It has always seemed funny to me how politicians can so successfully evoke applause throughout their speeches by obvious markers of vocal inflection, regardless of content. I also believe there'd be no difficulty in identifying various parts of the media (an NPR newscaster, a televangelist, or a monster-truck ad)without words and simply by the melody of the delivery. In addition I feel prompted to mention the way we all can understand the strictly tonal language used by all adults in Charlie Brown's world.

I do have one specific complaint about this Radiolab episode however. Fantasia was NOT created for children, nor did children make up the audiences when it originally played in theaters. I personally make Fantasia a part of my Christmas tradition each year and continue to enjoy it thoroughly as an adult.

May. 12 2013 12:57 PM
P. Rahn from Bloomington,Indiana

I always enjoy Radiolab. A few comments on the music program, mainly about the Stravinsky Rite of Spring segment. The idea that Starvinsky was sad when people were finally able to hear his music is an odd thought. As an artist, you do not want your work to be forever misundertstood, or heard wrongly, you want your work to be understood and appreciated for what it is you had in mind when you wrote it (music or literature, etc). It is rare for a person experiencing a piece of art to see it exactly as the artist had in mind when creating it, but no artist wants their work to be forever un-received.I suggest Stravinsky was thrilled to have people finally "hear" his work, letting him know his cretivity, like a gift, would be received and valued. It would allow him to know he could continue to move forward in his work, stretch into new areas, etc.

Also, as a person raised in the United States with English as my language, and someone who studied Mandarin for a graduate degree starting in my forties, I found the segment on tone extra fun. Not sure I agree with the conclusions but it was interesting research. You mention that our western great composers (why was Bach not mentioned? Did he not have perfect pitch?)had perfect pitch and suggest that's why they composed the music they did. YOu also suggest that if someone has perfect pitch they are more "in tune" with their music.Then you mention that Mandarin speakers tend to have perfect pitch to a larger degree than westerners. The question then arises, why did Chinese music develop in such a different direction from western music?

May. 12 2013 11:55 AM

and yet perfect pitch does not make you a wonderful musician any more than knowing 'brown' makes you an artist.
in fact - folks with perfect pitch seem unable to tune an ensemble as well as someone who works hard at relative pitch

May. 12 2013 08:30 AM
Joan from Upper Westside

This program was a great disappointment to me. I have appreciated Radiolab for thinking outside the box, and I felt I was learning a lot from listening to it. But when you presented this program on a subject I know a lot about, I saw big flaws in your thinking, even before I knew about the historical inaccuracy of the report on the two Stravinski programs, and about the questions that have come up about the credibility of the reporter, Jonah Lehrer. The nature of the audience, which was not being considered, makes an enormous difference in how music is received, whether it is reported in words or in scientific measurement. To some people, anything new is distasteful, and to others, new things bring excitement, pleasure. Applies not only to music but also to art, literature, food, maybe everything. Some people were outraged when Bach's music was first played.

May. 12 2013 02:17 AM
Nanette from ridgewood, nj

The past Radio Lab show on how we biologically process music was just astounding.. probably one of the most interesting insights in the sounds of music i have ever heard. thank you RAdioLab guys for finally explaining to me why cacophony is so unpleasant to listen to. and why something like Tchwaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D brought me to tears the first time i listened to it. now i think more of the great classical composers for doing something miraculous to the experience of music that now a simple computer program can reproduce.. It actually makes me honor the talent of the great composers of the past even more than I did.. THANK YOU for this show.. i loved it

May. 11 2013 02:15 PM

Very interesting show. A couple of thoughts I had while listening:

Stravinsky's use of dissonant chords reminded me of a somewhat more modern use by the early heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath who famously used the tritone or "devils chord" in their music to help establish a whole new genre of music. This music was also often met with protests and criticism, spanning back to the supposed ban of these chords by the catholic church in the middle ages. I also kept waiting for the comparison of Stravinsky's piece to John Williams use (some say sampling) of them in his theme music for the movie "Jaws". I'm sure many of us remember the emotional reaction this piece of music evoked in people for many years as it became as famous (or more) as the movie.

With respect to the piece on the computer which composes music, isn't the computer doing the same thing that most composers do. That is, compose music by rearranging notes and patterns (either consciously or subconsciously) that they have heard before from their musical influences. I guess maybe that's the point: another example of computers doing something that previously only humans could do.

May. 10 2013 03:41 PM
Wil Davis from Nausea, New Hampster

Yet another piece of garbiage! Why does NPR waste so much money on this badly produced rubbish! The concept is good, but the production is so terrible. The narrator is so "Oh wow! I'm so amazed!" I just have to switch the wretched stuff off! "CLICK!" RadioLab? RadioCrap!!!
- Wil Davis

May. 10 2013 12:18 PM
Brian from New York

I'm confused...I went to a performance of The Right of Spring last year at the New York Philharmonic, and it was terrific music, but the playbill I got at the concert seemed to lay out pretty clearly that the supposed "riot" was really people who came ready to trash the show because they didn't like what Stravinsky was doing in general. It said that it wasn't the music that moved them to do this, but rather their dislike of the composer (I believe they brought whistles and noise makers and disrupted the music about a minute and half into the piece).

I think the general arc of this piece's narrative still makes sense and is intriguing: It's strange how some sounds can make us angry or scared, but then can later make us happy to hear them again (anyone with an older brother who liked Metallica can probably attest to this).

But again, I'm confused at why the producers either 1) felt ok with mis-reporting something they knew was not-that-true, or 2) didn't check to see that their version of the story was an exaggeration.

Still a fan, keep up the great work in general.

May. 04 2013 12:04 PM
Stephen Malinowski from Northern California

The last few months, I've been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Last week I completed the first part:


Stephen Malinowski
Music Animation Machine

Apr. 05 2013 09:08 PM
Bernd Willimek from Bretten, Germany

To answer the question, why music can make emotions, you should know, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can convey operations of will, but the music listener perceives the operations of will dyed by emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic film in cinema, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but operations of will. The spectator perceives the operation of will dyed by emotions - identifying with the protagonist.
If you want more information about the emotional effect of music, you should know the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says listening music we identify with a will against the changing of dissonant overtone-intervals. On this way you can derive the emotional colors of musical chords and find the first method to explain, why music touches us emotionallyIt is described in the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings". You can get it on the link:
If you understand German you can download the better translation "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Mar. 16 2013 04:55 AM
Bernd Willimek from Bretten, Germany

To answer the question, why music can make emotions, you should know, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can convey operations of will, but the music listener perceives the operations of will dyed by emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic film in cinema, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but operations of will. The spectator perceives the operation of will dyed by emotions - identifying with the protagonist.
If you want more information about the emotional effect of music, you should know the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says listening music we identify with a will against the changing of dissonant overtone-intervals. On this way you can derive the emotional colors of musical chords and find the first method to explain, why music touches us emotionallyIt is described in the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings". You can get it on the link:
If you understand German you can download the better translation "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Mar. 16 2013 04:54 AM
Bernd Willimek from Bretten, Germany

To answer the question, why music can make emotions, you should know, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can convey operations of will, but the music listener perceives the operations of will dyed by emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic film in cinema, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but operations of will. The spectator perceives the operation of will dyed by emotions - identifying with the protagonist.
If you want more information about the emotional effect of music, you should know the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says listening music we identify with a will against the changing of dissonant overtone-intervals. On this way you can derive the emotional colors of musical chords and find the first method to explain, why music touches us emotionallyIt is described in the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings". You can get it on the link:
If you understand German you can download the better translation "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Mar. 16 2013 04:54 AM
Bernd Willimek from Bretten, Germany

To answer the question, why music can make emotions, you should know, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can convey operations of will, but the music listener perceives the operations of will dyed by emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic film in cinema, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but operations of will. The spectator perceives the operation of will dyed by emotions - identifying with the protagonist.
If you want more information about the emotional effect of music, you should know the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says listening music we identify with a will against the changing of dissonant overtone-intervals. On this way you can derive the emotional colors of musical chords and find the first method to explain, why music touches us emotionallyIt is described in the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings". You can get it on the link:
If you understand German you can download the better translation "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Mar. 16 2013 04:54 AM
Abe from Seattle

I just listened to this for the first time. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking about music, specifically the music that I write. I have a problem that I am never really satisfied with what I write even if someone else loves it. I have also found that the things that I write and love are the things that come out accidentally. This podcast helped me understand a little more about what's going on in my head and how my mind likes to be surprised. It seems to be hard for your mind to surprise itself. It also explains why I feel the need to constantly find new music, and how sometimes I don't like an album the first time I hear it and eventually it becomes my favorite. So much to think about!

Jan. 03 2013 01:57 PM
Brittani from salt lake city, utah

The first part of this podcast drives me crazy. If the Chinese are so much more musically talented then why has american music taken over the world? pitch is what technique is to visual art. It's good to have, but really only ads frosting to passion, creativity, and experimentation!

Dec. 23 2012 04:08 AM
Rhiannon from Hollywood, CA

Why I am supposed to trust a "science" program which can't even get easily available information like performance dates correct? And which hasn't retracted any of its programs featuring Jonah Lehrer?

Nov. 17 2012 07:42 PM

I hear the original recording of the "sometimes behaves so strangly" with flatter tones. Maybe it's me...

Sep. 21 2012 05:50 PM

All tonal languages in the world rely on relative, not absolute, pitch. Which makes sense, because almost all humans are born with a relatively good sense of relative pitch, but only those with "perfect pitch" have a good sense of absolute pitch. So, how would a language that relies heavily on relative pitch aid someone in developing a sense of absolute pitch?

Aug. 25 2012 04:49 AM
Abagail Fox

Music is not only in the sounds of instruments or voice, but as well as nature, animals and speaking. The radio lab was very interesting when they discussed the idea of human means connecting to infants through spoken words. This can also relate to other animals that do not have a developed speech. I watch my neighbor’s dogs occasionally and the way I speak to the dog is the same way another person might speak to their one-year-old daughter. It is a comforting tone in the human voice that is relatable to many different living creatures. Music can be found everywhere.
Music theory is key to aspects of music. It is crucial to be taught music theory because it is the core of how music works. A musician needs to understand the rhythms and structures of music to be able to create a work of music. To write a piece of music it requires the knowledge of music theory to have it be written clearly. The most important point of music theory is to be open to teaching others so musicians can develop a deeper understand of music.

Aug. 23 2012 08:03 AM
fred smith from NYC

Does Radiolab ever retract an episode? Given the revelation of Jonah Lehrer as a journalistic fraud, I hope they might consider at least appending an editorial note to this episode. More important than Lehrer's now non-existent credentials is the fact that the argument he forwards in this episode is completely bogus, based on incorrect facts, repeating a thoroughly debunked myth about the premiere of 'The Rite of Spring'.

It's genuinely absurd to hear someone repeat the idea out loud that the 'riot' was a result of a reaction to Stravinsky's music. That is so far outside the realm of accepted fact in this day and age that it really shouldn't have made it onto the radio.

Aug. 10 2012 11:08 AM

When I was young I loved Fantasia and Stravinsky's segment was my favorite. It was most likely because of the dinosaurs, but I loved the The Rite of Spring and I think it is probably the reason I listen to a lot of chaotic/noise music as an adult. Thanks Radiolab for helping me make that connection. Also I know it was stated earlier and this is old, but yeah its the dinosaur one not the mushrooms or hippos.

Aug. 08 2012 02:46 PM
Kay O. Sweaver from San Francisco

Just stumbled across this new research project that reminded me of this episode and thought I'd share;

Jun. 18 2012 10:25 PM

This was the best show ever! Wonderful, fascinating, moving, funny, touching...really great work.

Apr. 29 2012 06:52 PM

oh so reminiscent:

enjoy! (the notes are based on actual orbital frequencies)

Mar. 12 2012 08:52 PM
andrew from FL

just listened to this on WLRN, superb.

Feb. 18 2012 01:02 PM

The Mozart Piece is the Allegro from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik a.k.a. Seranade no. 13 for Strings in G Major K. 525

The Beethoven Piece is the Adagio Sostenuto from Piano Sonata No,. 14 in C sharp minor opus 27, a.k.a. The Moonlight Sonata

Just for good measure the Bach was the Prelude from the Suite for Solo Cello #1 in G Major BWV 1007

Jan. 09 2012 03:45 PM
noobdles from Australia

omg best episode ever, :))) so good

Jan. 08 2012 12:19 AM

does anyone know what that song was- that was played by mozart at around 11 minutes?

Jan. 01 2012 09:01 PM
Ana from Portugal

(23:22) Yes, it's lame, but it's muito fixe hearing your native language on Radiolab. Yay!

Dec. 21 2011 12:18 PM

Atfer being in TOK and listening to this I cannot get this out of head. It is so interesting what our brains can do to us

Oct. 28 2011 07:12 PM
SSCoagan from Portland, Or

What is the Beethoven piano piece that begins playing after Bach in the first section of the show?

Oct. 02 2011 02:00 AM

The Rite of Spring passage in Fantasia is not the hippos and mushrooms but the saga of the dinosaurs and their extinction, just so you guys know. ;)

Jun. 21 2011 05:11 PM
Matt from Ridgewood, NY

Followup on Curt from Minnesota's comment: there was no riot at the Rite of Spring premiere.

Jun. 02 2011 11:21 AM
Curt from Minnesota

Your interpretation of the Sacre riot has been discounted long ago as being primarily because of Nijinsky's choreography. The ballet was performed 5 more times without much reaction, and performances in London soon after produced no such reaction. The point Jonah is trying to make may be valid, but his example is flawed. Once again, the leap to a desired conclusion isn't justified by the data - I now cringe whenever I hear him cited as a source.

May. 29 2011 03:01 PM
Megan from Sarasota, FL

Pia Toscano in the LaGuardia High School Chorus?! From American Idol?! She was discovered on RADIOLAB! (59:10)

May. 27 2011 02:08 PM

Pia Toscano in the LaGuardia High School Chorus?! From American Idol?! She was discovered on RADIOLAB! (59:10)

May. 27 2011 02:08 PM
Nancy D.

Just a thought while listening to this episode for the 3rd time -- RK saying he finds it sad that the brain will always seek to familiarize the new, thereby robbing the artist of his/her newness. But here's another perspective: The whole deal with artists is how they work -- how much and hard the work is, and, if you are an artist, how repetitive it can be, the working and re-working or re-visiting of whatever it is that obsesses. I think that the reason an artist can eventually present something new is because for the artist it isn't exactly new anymore in the sense that they've been working enough with dissonance to have changed their neurons. So I guess RK was responding to one part of it, the death of the thing, where we are always living a cycle of death/birth/life/death/etc. Which is what creativity is, no?

Apr. 21 2011 06:00 PM
JC from Louisville, KY

It surprises me that Steve Reich and several of his compositions are not mentioned during the "...behaves so strangely" segment. First, he accidentally discovered a composing technique known as Phase Shifting while working with a loop. Second, he has used human speech recordings to derive pitches and rhythms for years now. Check out his piece "City Life" in which he orchestrates the instruments to mimic real-life speech recordings and street sounds from New York City.

Apr. 18 2011 12:09 AM

My apologies, I didn't listen far enough into the episode. I see it was Stravinsky.

Mar. 16 2011 12:47 PM

Does anyone know the trumpet song at 28:00 minutes?? What a GREAT episode.

Mar. 16 2011 12:41 PM
Tanya from Seattle, WA

"Sometimes behaves so strangely.."

It's stuck in my head now. Oh no. LSS "Last Song Syndrome" haha!

Mar. 03 2011 02:29 PM
Jessica from Austin, TX

Of course, this is anecdotal and not scientific. However, last night I was trying to help my son (almost 2yrs old) go to sleep by playing our local classical station. He started freaking out, completely inexplicably. After awhile (maybe 15 minutes), I realized the classical station was playing some very avant garde music. I thought of this episode and the riot at Rite of Spring, so I quickly put in a CD of some much less avant garde music, and he calmed down and fell asleep within a few minutes. Because this was my car and not a lab, I can't control for all variables, but your episode very well may have aided me in my parenting (and in my sleeping).

Thanks for being entertaining and possibly very practical :)


Mar. 02 2011 12:13 PM
Chris from Kelowna, BC

Dear Radiolab.

This episode instantly reminded me of

For anyone who enjoyed this episode - If you
haven't heard of Charles Spearin's Happiness
Project, I suggest that it is worth a listen, considering professor Diana Deutsch's story.

Feb. 25 2011 10:53 PM
Chris from Kelowna, BC

Dear Radiolab.

This episode instantly reminded me of

For anyone who enjoyed this episode - If you
haven't heard of Charles Spearin's Happiness
Project, I suggest that it is worth a listen, considering professor Diana Deutsch's story.

Feb. 25 2011 10:53 PM

In case you haven't found it, here are the illusions:

Dec. 16 2010 03:17 PM
Katelin from

I listened to this radio episode today while I was picking brain slices to stain. Defiantly have some thoughts about this episode.

Many of the underlying points are very interesting and may be very valid, but I have some issues with some of their assumptions.

Music is extremely cultural, as is our ideas of note names. The Western method of tuning (equal tempered) is pretty specific to western music (as is the idea of a major third sounding better than a minor second). To think that these preferences are inherent somewhere in the brain is pretty presumptive and we have to be careful when talking that way. There does seem to be something inherent about the perfect fifth and it is often found in nature, but there ends the tentative universality of music. The music of Bali (and others) actually DEPENDS on their notes being “out of tune” and they feel that music truly lacking in depth without it. We must be so careful when we deem one system as correct and another as incorrect. In many cultures, rhythm is the main unit of music and language (rather than pitches and chords as in western classical). To a classical musician, the music sounds plain and simple because there is not harmonic depth, but it is terribly complex rhythmically, and in fact a symphony to someone of that background in immensely plain and simplistic. Along these lines, I would guess English is timbre based? Not tonal like mandarin (as we can vary pitch and maintain meaning), and not rhythmic, because we can say things fast and slow yet maintain meaning). But slight changes in consonants and diphthongs can really mess things up. We notice ESL students have trouble with t/d, th/t, l/r. I dunno…out on a limb with that one.

So when they talk about certain neurons firing for ugly minor 2nd chords, I am suspicious. Perhaps it is true that these neurons fire at sounds that are culturally deemed odd/novel? This I would believe. Or perhaps they always fire for minor 2nds, regardless of whether we think that is bad or not.

Also the matter of perfect pitch making Chinese students better musicians (you know…cause that stereotype must be true….???), I was unconvinced that the difference wasn’t just due to difference in practice time or the quality of instruction received, or the encouragement of parents. Chinese student also out-perform Americans on math tests. Does that mean that their brains are innately better in math? Probably not, but it does speak to their education system and hard work.

What I think would be a more interesting experiment would be to reverse the direction of the dependent variable—to see if English speakers with perfect pitch are better at learning mandarin than those without perfect pitch.
Just some thoughts on a very interesting and well-done episode.

Dec. 16 2010 03:14 PM

Where can you find the audio experiments to listen to these days.....? I wanna know what the Chromatic illusion is all about.

Dec. 13 2010 12:40 PM
yayan from seattle, wa

i'm pretty sure the rite of spring was used in the evolution/dinosaur part of fantasia...right?

Nov. 24 2010 03:03 PM

At art school was the first time I heard Rite of Spring. It didn't seem so shocking to me at the time. The stories of the riots intrigued me beyond belief. I enjoyed the theory of why they did.

As usual a fascinating show. Thank you.

Nov. 04 2010 03:34 AM
Steve Ganot from Beit Shemesh, Israel

Fascinating show, as usual. By the way, the language at heard at 22:38 (eifo hapil?) is not Yiddish, but Hebrew.

Oct. 17 2010 12:35 PM
alex m from jena

amazing, beautiful, GORGEOUS ressource, i can spend hours here, thank you!

Sep. 20 2010 06:26 PM
Charlotte Nall from South Pasadena, California

This program has answered a question I have puzzled over since 1967. In 1967, friends introduced me to Bartok. I didn't like it. It disturbed me. It made me feel uncomfortable with myself. Months later, I heard the same piece and found it pleasant and intelligent. Later I bought several Bartok records. I loved them. Aside: Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers.

I was greatly puzzled by my reaction to Bartok. At first, I wondered if I was accepting Bartok to fit in with these highly intelligent, abstract thinking people. That was so unlike me. Thank you for the clarification.


Sep. 12 2010 03:26 PM
Samantha Luck from Newport News, VA

I am the youngest of 4 sisters. My parents were amateur musicians (professionally a doctor and a nurse) and they encouraged all of us to take music lessons. When I was very small, my sisters all took turns caring for me, and when it was Kim's turn she would lay me across her lap while she practiced piano for hours. By the time I was 2, the family discovered I had perfect pitch.

I have always believed the development of this skill had more to do with my exposure to music than to some genetic accident. Thank you for presenting a program that helps me make some sense of it.

I am now a music therapist and teacher and work with many students with special needs. I'm going to add this podcast to my computer lab and have students listen to, explore, and write essays on it. How fascinating!

Sep. 08 2010 12:19 AM
Erica from Michigan

Ok, the first part of this episode was like a deja-vu for me. The other day this phenomenon actually happened to me in real time. I was in an argument with my mom, and all the sudden I realized what I was saying was coming out like a song/chant. It was really really weird for me. And as soon as I realized it, I was really startled. I wonder if we do this all the time, but just aren't aware of it.

Sep. 02 2010 04:44 PM

What came first? Music or language? Easy. Music! First there was sound, OM, then there was light, then, there was matter.

Sep. 02 2010 01:14 AM
chris morgan

Social Psychology has adopted the term dissonance to explain the physiological response experienced when an individual's behavoir does not match their attitude.

Aug. 31 2008 08:12 PM

That idea definitely makes sense to me, though it may take me a little while to get used to.

Feb. 22 2008 06:02 PM

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