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Behaves So Strangely

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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 has some exciting news. The problem might not be your ears, but your language. She tells us about tone languages, such as Mandarin and Vietnamese, which rely on pitch to convey the meaning of a word. Turns out speakers of tone languages are exponentially more inclined to have absolute (AKA 'perfect') pitch. And, nope, English isn't one of them.

What is perfect pitch anyway? And who cares? Deutsch, along with Jad and Robert, will duke it out over the merits of perfect pitch. A sign of genius, a nuisance, or an evolutionary superpower? You decide. (We can't).

Comments [53]

Parker from North Carolina

NC Governor's School West!!!!

Feb. 10 2017 10:08 PM
Mert Iseri from Chicago

Enjoy everyone!

Jan. 22 2017 11:21 PM
Gregory from Florida, USA

The absolute pitch (AP) portion of her study appears to be quite flawed:

1. It is irrelevant whether the same person speaks the same word (in a tonal language) at the same pitch on different days. The question is - do DIFFERENT people say the same word on the same pitch? Hint: no. The tonal word's pitch largely depends on the overall speech context and environment (speech habits of the person and others around them). This can be shown even for non-tonal languages: e.g., speakers of American English speak on a lower overall pitch than speakers of British English (CNN vs BBC). So the tonal reference is relative and not absolute, and tonal languages don't have any more in common with AP than non-tonal languages.

2. The higher incidence of AP in Asia is probably due to higher cultural emphasis on early musical training (just like with math) and not due to the "tonal" nature of the languages.

3. AP is perceptual, so remembering a note accurately or speaking a word on the same pitch is not necessarily AP. True AP possessors don't get thrown off by intervening music or other sound (because they perceive an additional aspect of sound in real time), but mere mortals do.

4. Speech obviously has an aspect of the pitch/tone because it's a sound. So does microwave or fridge buzzing and lots of other nonmusical sounds - you don't need a multi-year study to figure this out. But AP possessors perceive both musical and non-musical sounds differently than non-APPs. They have a sensation in the brain that is present in addition to the regular awareness of hearing a sound. Yes, just like language, this is likely learned at an early age, but tonal vs non-tonal language distinction adds nothing to understanding this phenomenon for the reasons stated above.

Aug. 13 2016 02:42 PM
octavio perez from San Antonio Tx

The audience didn't like the first presentation of The Rite of the Spring, not only for the music but also for the dancing, the second presentation without dancers had better acceptance.

Nov. 02 2015 11:03 AM
Hal from Boston

I'm one of those rare native English-only speakers having developed perfect pitch - by the age of 10 or so. My mom did a lot of songs with us at the piano from an early age, and she also had enrolled me in piano lessons for about 2 years at that point. I went on to achieve pro level piano and music composition skills and I do think the perfect pitch helped me a lot - but..

When I was TA in music theory in college, the only perfect pitch student in my class was merely in the top third of class to my own surprise. So I now conclude that perfect pitch is just one factor amongst many others in high musical talent and/or accomplishment.

I now have kids of my own. Each learned Mandarin from birth thanks to their mom, and English from birth thanks to me. I put them in Music Together classes from 6 months of age, and then enrolled each in Suzuki or other music instrument lessons from the ages of 3 or 4. My oldest, now 11, seems on track to develop perfect pitch, but at this point can only recognize the white keys of the piano correctly, and I'm not sure about my younger ones.
Perhaps my family would make interesting test subjects for professors like Deutsch?

I also do concur with several comments likely made by Chinese folks above: cultural expectations among several E. Asian cultures at home and amongst immigrants in the US are often huge factors in musical accomplishment. (Ditto for why several US national spelling bee winners were immigrants from Vietnam.) Many such parents sit with their kids when they practice from an early age, and take careful note of what music teachers explain at lessons, and are not tolerant of misbehavior during practice at home, and have high expectations. Americans of all backgrounds should also remember that since the 1960s, US immigration policy (only talking legals here) greatly favors the highly educated in technical professions - and so your more typical working class average talent Chinese faces much greater difficulties immigrating to the US than their more accomplished relations.

Oct. 29 2015 11:37 PM
J from United States

I'd just like to point out that University or California San Diego and University of San Diego are not the same institution.

Feb. 27 2015 10:35 PM

My music teacher says you didn't properly do your research about so-called riot caused by the rite of spring concert.

Dec. 05 2014 07:41 AM
Leslie Olson from St. Paul

The ending note in the "Sometimes behave so strangely" sounds more like an F# than a G natural to me, did anyone else with absolute pitch hear that, as well?

Sep. 25 2014 06:40 AM
Marko from Croatia

My ears started ringing a few years ago and I thought "Great - my own tuning fork! I have perfect pitch!", but it keeps moving around from b5 to e5. Damn.

Jul. 22 2014 02:07 PM
Elizabeth from Cary, NC

Has anyone done an analysis of whether Mandarin speakers "speak" in the same key as well as use the same tones? Would a linguistic tonic, or home, key contribute to acquisition of absolute pitch?

I suspect that this program has confused absolute pitch with superior relative pitch. In Bach's time, for example, every church tuned its organ differently. Secular and sacred music were played as much as a whole step apart although notated in the same key. Tuning systems changed over the centuries in an attempt to keep certain intervals consonant. In short, the concept of absolute pitch is a modern construct. More than likely, what we call absolute pitch is superior auditory memory within a particular cultural context. Perhaps spoken Mandarin operates within a constant pitch context, thereby reinforcing pitch memory.

Jun. 22 2014 09:27 PM
St Laurence from Biloxi, MS USA

Interesting hypothesis and supporting evidence. Would this same ability to maintain tonal precision, as dictated by culture, limit originality and independent thinking, in effect supporting some of the stereotypical observations that some have held regarding differences between East and West?

Jun. 22 2014 05:43 PM
Martin from Sydney, Australia

I heard this quite a long time ago (how long? I can't remember, but must be over a year ago) and the "sometimes behave so strangely" was still musical on the "first" hearing, even after all that time. Crazy!!!

Jun. 22 2014 06:22 AM
Ron White from Lake Jackson, Texas

The phenomena of changing pitches changing word meaning is not solely a characteristic of tonal languages. In American/English pitch and inflection also changes word meaning. For example, "no" changes from a straightforward negation into a question if spoken with a rising pitch inflection. Also, spoken in a higher pitch with a slightly wavering inflection, "no" is far from the ultimate disambiguation it becomes when spoken in a lower pitch with a falling inflection.

Multiple Mandarin speakers exhibiting the same meaning changes with the exact pitch changes, to me, clearly identifies that language as "tonal," but I wonder if similar studies have been done on other languages. Aren't all languages tonal to some extent?

Jun. 21 2014 04:17 PM
Fay from frisconia

Great companion piece to "the vocal fry". Less than five minutes into the show right after sometimes behaves so strangely, it was said that some music makes us angry - that was exact reaction to an ANNOYING TV commercial that went, "a sprinkle a day helps keep odor Awaaaay, have you had your sprinkle todaaay!". I almost took out my shotgun named Elvis and perforated the television set like Elvis was known to do whilst sitting on his toilet.

Marvin Hamlisch said in an interview (that fascinated me), that when composing on the piano, he knew he could insert a series of chords that would always make people cry. Would love to hear more about that!

Jun. 21 2014 04:13 PM

As someone who speaks Mandarin and listens to Mandarin songs, I've noticed that the songs are actually "less" tonal. Think about it. Each note that you sing in a song is flat, a single tone, a single note. So a Mandarin singer will sing each word in the flat, first tone. Listeners would still understand the song due to the context. For instance, one proficient in Mandarin will probably conclude a family song is about one's mother and not a horse.

But spoken Mandarin requires that you change tone with each word. Seen this way, it's almost as if Mandarin songs are less "musical" than spoken Mandarin.

Mar. 14 2014 07:32 PM
Randall Young from NY

Hmm… In a program about perfect pitch, you guys played the Moonlight Sonata in the wrong key! What's up with that?

Nov. 12 2013 08:39 PM
Alan Tower from South Pasadena, CA

RE: Post by mo3dau from Boston, MA
This to me is a VERY insightful anlaysis and set of observations.
Fascinating what Ms. Deutsch would say to this?

May. 30 2013 03:09 AM
Killian from Chapel Hill

Yes, Steve Reich's "Different Trains." Also performance artist Laurie Anderson. Her work explores the crack in the voice between speaking and singing (I paraphrase). I try to do the same in my choreography--the space between walking and dancing is my Radiolab. Thanks for a fabulous episode!

May. 13 2013 07:47 AM
Dre from Uptown

This reminded of a youtube artist named Pogo who takes whimsically spoken phrases from old Disney films and turns them into full form songs. The results are as if not more catchy as 'Sometimes behaves so strangely'. One of his most popular songs called 'Alice' takes phrases and random sounds solely from the 1951 film 'Alice in Wonderland. Here is the youtube link:

May. 10 2013 09:34 PM
jon-christian suggs from NYC

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 09:59 AM

As a musician who sometimes struggles with a mental block while trying to use my creative juices to create melody, I had a minor epiphany while listening to the 'behaves so strangely' segment. Musicality and melody in particular is so inherent in natural speech patterns that I just experimented with a common piece of speech we all should be used to.

I opened up an episode of Radiolab in Audacity and looped, in much the same way as Deutsch did, the phrase 'Listener contributions are the reason we can do this', as spoken by Jad, which is currently at the pre-roll of downloaded episodes from the website.

It's quite a rhythmic little phrase, lively and melodiously bouncy. Give it a try yourself, you'll see what I mean.

As for me, I think I'm embarking on a musical journey. My mind is blown, and I will never hear people speak in the same manner again! I've definitely skewed my brain's perception of how I hear the pre-roll thank you message from Jad, anyway.

So, thanks. ;-)

Apr. 09 2012 07:38 PM
Robin from Boston

I loved this program and I was fascinated with the concept of the universal human means of connecting with infants through spoken song patterns. The common way we speak to those who don't have speech. I have to say what this made me think is that my cat and perhaps other creatures are the same and share this with human beings. I know that animals are considered to not be able to make music. But when I speak to my cat I use the same four basic communications that were spoken about in depth in the program for comfort, attention, stopping behavior,etc.. Not only do I use them but my cat understands them clearly. So I find it very interesting that perhaps some mammals and who knows many other creatures may have these inherent musical patterns in their brains as well.

Mar. 07 2012 12:14 PM
mo3dau from Boston, MA

Because China has such a huge population to choose among, their top talent will generally be more numerous, and often more talented (!) than ours. Which is why we will have a hard time winning in the Olympics, and other skills-based competitions. In the past, poverty limited Chinese athletes' and musicians' and mathematician's opportunities...but now that many more Chinese are in a position to spend time and money acquiring skills, they will trend to dominate in most international competitions. The only way we Americans will save face is by introducing new competitions (skateboarding, ski-jumping, etc) that they don't know how to do yet. Another strategy would be to recruit athletes from around the world (larger population to draw skills from), and immigrate them to the USA in time for the Olympics (or whatever other skilled competition). Both of these are ways that our country can also "stack the deck".

Rich Americans have always gotten their "average" kids into the top colleges by having them compete within smaller populations: they have them play sports and musical instruments that middle and lower class Americans cannot afford, so that the competition is much more limited, and their kids "shine". Games like soccer, which require little equipment (a ball) and can be played almost anywhere, are much harder to stand out in, because there is such a large population of other soccer-skilled people to compete with. (Similarly with singing, in music.) But hockey and figure-skating, and rowing crew, and ski-jumping, golf, and tennis, all require a large investment in equipment, coaching, space, and many fewer students can afford to participate. How many students can afford a tuba, and a tuba-teacher? Or a harp? If 1500 kids in America play the tuba, and 200,000 kids in America are excellent soccer players, the chance of your "average-intelligence" kid getting into the Ivy League colleges is higher if they play the tuba, than if they play soccer. But does a kid really benefit from spending hours alone practicing the tuba, when s/he could be getting exercise and learning about teamwork and strategy and anticipation and socializing on the soccer pitch??? I digress. Bottom line: you have to look at the whole national population from which talent is drawn, before you make conclusions about the origin of talent!

Mar. 04 2012 04:13 AM
mo3dau from Boston, MA

Dr. Deutch's hypothesis is very interesting...Does a tonal language environment teach perfect pitch to infants? But I worry about her data. China is a country with a population of 1.338 billion people. USA is a country with 0.312 billion people. In other words, China has 4 times as many people in it as the USA. Dr. Deutch studied students at a well-known school of music in the capital city of Beijing. It is very likely that students from all over China compete to get into that school, and also very likely that with so many students to choose from, the school could fill most of their classes with "perfect pitch" students. Since historically the most famous composers have had perfect pitch (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelsohn, etc.), it is very likely that an ambitious music school in China WOULD select for perfect-pitch students. If 1 in 10,000 humans has perfect pitch, there must be about 133,800 people in China with perfect pitch, at any given time. Dr. Deutch did not tell us whether the selection process to enter that school includes a test for perfect-pitch! My hunch is that if she tests a random population of Chinese people, the results may be much less impressive. With the smaller USA population, we only have 31,200 Americans with perfect pitch at any given time (some old, some young). These Americans have many good music schools to choose from, and are not so likely to all end up in one central national school. Also, American academic institutions tend to "think outside the box", so the American music school may take students with many diverse talents and interests, not just students with perfect pitch. In other words, the Beijing music school has "stacked the deck", compared to the American school. The 74% of perfect-pitch students in the Chinese school, and the 14% of perfect-pitch students in the American school are probably misleading, and not at all reflective of the % of perfect pitch in the countries' general populations.

Mar. 04 2012 03:28 AM
Julie from Space-Time

Response to Boston Musician.

Ah this is interesting and I hadn't thought of it. I think what you are suggesting, that amazing amounts of hard work, specifically in musical training, could have affected the results. And that many Chinese children are truthfully trained very rigorously at a young age, much more so than in other cultures.
So maybe a more accurate experiment might be then to have children or people with equal musical training and exposure, but one who speaks and is exposed to tone language, and one (or groups) who are not.

Feb. 05 2012 01:28 AM
Boston Musician from Boston, MA

As a Chinese-American and professional musician, I was disappointed in the pell-mell conclusions of this report.

While I do agree that all humans have greater capacity to recognize pitch, I find this analysis deeply flawed. The research cited does not account for cultural/social factors: the differences in content or rigor of training between the Chinese and American music students.

Having studied at conservatories in the U.S. and spent one year studying in Beijing, I am certain that there is no comparison between the rigorous training that is the norm for kids in China and the kind of theoretical training an American music student gets at a young age (usually none).

The sheer number of hours, the discipline enforced by watchful parents, the basic music theory education that those Chinese (and Chinese-American)students have had should be taken into consideration.

These are the factors I would posit lead to that Chinese girl playing Rachmaninoff while Jad was playing Frere Jacques - not some biological, genetic or even necessarily linguistic advantage.

Furthermore, the size of the study is too small to be conclusive (88 Chinese students, 115 American students). I'd be really interested to see a larger-scale study that accounts for differences in musical training.

Jul. 14 2011 05:22 PM
Taylor from Santa Barbara

I'd love to be the one to introduce you to Nick Bertke, also known as Pogo, a brilliant remix artist.

His tune "Upular" is a melodic remix of spoken dialogue from Pixar's "UP." The highly fragmented vocal clips blend together to make a beautiful arrangement of musical notes hidden away in the dialogue. It is a prime example of the extent to which even non-tonal languages contain musical elements - and it's catchy. I hope you enjoy.

Jun. 23 2011 02:19 AM
Thomas from Switzerland

Maybe one important aspect of music is predictability. Once the phrase is heard several times, we predict it, we join in its production, and it becomes music. When we listen to talk, we just receive, but when we listen to music, we always participate, even if we hear it for the first time.

May. 05 2011 01:50 AM
Anthony Dunstan from The Netherlands

I'm currently completing my Masters in Composition and this episode would've been brilliant 2 years ago before I chose my thesis topic - I researching the interrelationship of words and music and this would've been a remarkable resource. Oh well, I guess I'll have to keep in touch for my PhD!!!

Feb. 01 2011 06:14 PM
benyamin from chicago

Ken in Atlanta. Did you teach me Ear Training at BCM in 1985? College Singers? If so I'm so happy to see your post/comment and I know you have perfect pitch so its totally unfair to those of us with only relative pitch...thanks to you! BH

Nov. 18 2010 09:05 PM

ever since I learned about tonal languages 30 years ago, I've always wondered... how do children & people who are "tone deaf" learn a completely tonal language?

Sep. 19 2010 08:50 PM

I'm a native Mandarin speaker... I never knew the language was this complicated! We just spoke it. Although sometimes we WOULD make fun of each other if our notes slip, but we never put that much thought into it (ie: perfect pitch).

Mar. 29 2010 09:55 PM
Sherry Tipton from Winchester, Kentucky

I was listening to the "Musical Language" show on the way home from work today and was struck by the implications of dissonant noises causing release of dopamine in the brain. Do you think that, perhaps, people who have irregular dopamine levels would be drawn to a particular kind of music that would cause the release of dopamine that would even out those levels? Could we self-medicate with sound? I would love to see a study that analyzed dopamine levels in people who like heavy metal music as opposed to someone who likes classical music.

Mar. 05 2010 07:25 PM
Ken from atlanta

this episode is mindblowingly awesome.

Jan. 06 2010 08:23 PM
Rowan from Bethesda, MD

Every now and then, I find myself walking around the house, or on the bus, or in the school library, humming "sometimes behaves so strangely..." The worst part of it, though, is that since discovering your show, I tell all my friends to listen to it, so now "sometimes behaves so strangely" counts as an earworm in my circle! Thanks (both sincere and sarcastic) for your work, and for bringing such amazing, scientific concepts down to earth-level understanding!

Dec. 29 2009 01:45 PM
Sudhir from NJ

Ever since I discovered Radio lab, my IPOD did not play anything else. This episode especially was more informative and insightful. Science, arts, culture and personal anecdotes perfectly blended. Thank you very much!

Nov. 13 2009 10:55 AM
Paul from California

You guys are right. "Sometimes behave so strangely" becomes musical after repetition... while everywhere else in the sentence, it's still words...

May. 02 2009 04:18 AM
Billy Boy from Arlington, TX

I was watching this skit on TV and couldn't stop laughing when the Janitor hit the "I don't cleam, I'm not cleam... OK?" part. Even though they modified the pitch in the repetitions, this is just like the "Sometimes behaves so strangely" phenomenon.

It even got made into a remix:

May. 01 2009 12:00 PM
ben from NJ

I love this show
I listen to it every week and download all the podcast
I wonder if they can send me the audio file of the high school singing
with the email I put in

Feb. 14 2009 07:41 PM

The Musical Language episode was my first exposure to Radiolab and to this day remains one of my favorites. Imagine my surprise when I read this...

Perhaps a modern day side effect of the same mechanism that caused the Rites of Spring riots?

Feb. 10 2009 11:22 AM
Will from New York

It is so inspiring to know that programs like Radiolab are being made and reaching an audience.

However, in Fantasia, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was not accompanied by mushrooms (this was The Nutcracker Suite). More appropriately, it involved the early history of the planet, spanning the origins of life to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Jan. 30 2009 04:43 PM
Meph from Springfield, IL

This link comes from a very low-brow site, but when I saw it I was reminded of this Radio Lab episode and specifically the "Sometimes behave so strangely" bit. Here, someone has made an explosion, a yelp, and then Macho Man saying "Art thou bored?" into music. The beauty of it is that it begins with simply these elements then comes in with music later. Then, just as with the Radio Lab segment, you can't hear these sounds again as simply the sounds, but as the music. Just thought I'd share!

Dec. 23 2008 12:42 PM

Turns out speakers of tone languages are exponentially more inclined to have absolute (AKA 'perfect') pitch.

Dr. Oliver Sacks in "Musicophilia" discusses this from the anthropology perspective.

Dec. 22 2008 07:09 PM

I love how the first bit relates to rap music. Great rappers are not only very aware of the inherent musicality and rhythm of language, they exploit and experiment with it.

Mar. 25 2008 06:47 PM
Luis Emilio from Columbia, MD

I am amazed that Mussorgsky was not mentioned in this program: This composer believed that music should reproduce the music of the natural language. Very interesting program!

Jan. 27 2008 09:05 PM
Kurtis Henderson from Bloomington, IN

I'm interested in why the singers chose to change the last pitch of "Sometimes behave so strangely." Speaking in solfege, the notes the singers sang were La La Sol Fa La Sol Do. But if you listen to Diana's speech, the tones she uses are La La Sol Fa La Sol Si (Ti for the Sound of Music fans out there.). It makes sense, too, because having the phrase end on a leading tone keeps the listeners' ears perked for what she'll say next, and of course she does go on to finish her sentence eventually. The singers change this last note, though, presumably to make the loop have more of a feeling of finality.

Dec. 28 2007 10:36 PM
Max Growth

The spoken word/song part of the segment reminds me of electronic/sample-based music.
Almost any dance music has songs with samples taken from films/programs/speeches where this principle is demonstrated.
Luke Vibert is a good example.
Great show!

Nov. 10 2007 06:16 PM
Al from Columbia, SC

I'm a new listener and this show just blew my mind. Excellent!

Sep. 28 2007 03:39 PM
Michael from Milwaukee, WI

Absolutely wonderful program, as usual. For many more amazing examples of the musicality of human speech, check out the music of The Books:

The song "Be Good to Them Always" is a particularly great example.

Sep. 10 2007 06:05 PM
Garth from Berkeley CA

I have just discovered Radio Lab. What a great show! Thank god things like this exist.
Thank you!!

Aug. 27 2007 03:32 AM
jbl from Cochise County, AZ

Among the many fascinating aspects of Diana Deutch's work, the subject of music extracted from a spoken phrase came sharply to mind when I was just listening again to a work by a contemporary American composer.

Check out "Different Trains" by Steven Reich. He makes terrific use of this phenomenon.

Aug. 06 2007 12:33 PM
bleezer from US

One theory dismissed by the host is that genetic factors contribute to more Chinese having perfect pitch. Isn't it possible that tone languages themselves exist in populations that are genetically disposed to higher intelligence, which are thus able to comprehend them more effectively? And has anyone investigated whether there a significant correlation between higher innate intelligence, tone language and perfect pitch (as politically incorrect as that might be)?

Jul. 21 2007 04:14 PM
christopher rock from bolton, ct

Dear Radio Labs

Somehow I stumbled upon Radio Labs and have found myself listening for the past 6 hours, absolutely loving every episode. Six hours, what is wrong with me?

I have never heard such an amazing broadcast with the shear quality, enthusiasm and joy for producing radio works.

Please keep up the great work and to WNYC, please continue to fund this series. I shall become a member of the WNYC family, simply for this program.

Thanks again for the smiles and joy

Chris Rock

Jul. 11 2007 09:48 PM

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