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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 study of infant-directed speech, recording more than a dozen different parents. The melodies of these recordings illustrate Fernald's findings that there are a set of common tunes living within the words that parents all over the world intone to their babies.

Then, science reporter Jonah Lehrer takes us on a tour through the ear as we try to understand how the brain makes sense of soundwaves and what happens when it can't. Which brings us to one particularly riotous example: the 1913 debut performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Jonah suggests that the brain's attempt to tackle disonant sounds resulted in old ladies tackling each other. Disney might even show up for the brawl.


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.

Comments [37]

Interesting program but I beg to differ on several points. The speaker suggests that the brain is biologically constrained to certain sonorous patterns and that is culture that opens up the brain to accept new sounds. I believe it to be the other way around, that we are born with brains that can accept any sound patterns, and that as we grow up we allow culture to dictate what or what is not acceptable. The idea of dissonance resolving comfortably into a consonant chord is in general a Western musical technique and often not used in other cultures. Many cultures have a complete different set of rules about how notes and dissonance, or tonality are used. Arab and Persian cultures use quarter and eighth tones that sound dissonant and out of tune to us. But for them they are completely natural, and I doubt people started rioting when musicians first started playing "dissonant" quarter tones. I doubt their neurotransmitters got so out of line that they had to get violent and riot. Honestly I feel that the speaker on this program is relegating the brain into that of a beast, that in only 40 minutes (the duration of the Rite of Spring) people's neurotransmitter levels got so out of whack that they lost control and started rioting. Debussy used similar unresolved dissonances about 15 years earlier, so why didn't anyone riot then? It wasn't about the fact that he used minor seconds, it was about the context in which he presented them. He disguised them in a dreamy, pleasant impressionist painting, in a matter of speaking. What people didn't like about Stravinsky is that when they showed up in their finery they were surprised to see half nude dancers celebrating a pagan non-western rite - the minor seconds and non-standard rhythms in this setting only added to the fire, but they were not the cause of the uprising. Another theory is that the rioters were planted, which is very likely

Oct. 03 2016 03:22 AM
Laura F from Oakland, CA

I'm new to the Radiolab podcast and am so glad I decided to go through the archives. Thank you so much for this piece. My husband loves very complex, dissonant music (such as metal), and I was never able to explain to him (or to myself) the painful sensation of overload that came over me when I tried to listen to his favorite music too intensely for too long.

Your description of neurons trying to make sense of the sound is exactly my experience. Thank you for explaining why I feel this way and how I can train my brain to handle this experience.

Dec. 21 2015 10:54 AM
Juliska from NW Wisconsin

Note to Ira: I attended a Philip Glass concert back in the early '80s at the symphony hall in St. Louis, MO. This was around the time "Einstein on the Beach" was making the rounds & I'd bought a cassette of it. I was a grad student at Washington University & an announcement came through the school that we could get free tickets to the performance. It was part of the season tickets package for St. Louis Symphony lovers. When I arrived, I recall noticing how sparsely attended the concert was. (Perhaps that was why they were giving away free tickets?)

I knew what to expect from Glass's music & looked forward to it. Within about 30 minutes of the show's start, some attendees were leaving, right in the middle of the performance. After intermission, it was obvious far more had left. The average person leaving was at least 50 years old and dressed conservatively.

The Stravinsky first performance of Rite of Spring reminded me of that experience. Glad to know Philip Glass is in good company. Fortunately, St. Louisans were far more polite about their dissonant experience.

Jun. 21 2014 05:37 PM
Juliska from NW Wisconsin

My mom used to play an album of "Rite of Spring" when I was a kid ('60s & '70s). The cover featured a mysterious rather frightening painting by Henri Rousseau of a shadowy woman playing a flute in a jungle. I think nearby some sort of snake lurked. As a result, I grew up knowing this piece quite well and just assuming it was well established classical music that every cultured, Western person valued. I'm delighted to hear the story of its first performance! Now I can use this story as proof of what I already have suspected for a long time: That when people deride today's modern music (of any sort) as "junk" and say things like, "Back in MY day they really knew how to write music," they are expressing an attitude as old as music itself: The unfamiliar, to people over a certain age, is generally considered "bad" or at least suspect. And quite often, today's "crap" becomes tomorrow's classic.

p.s. Today, "Rite of Spring" is one of my favorite classical pieces & Rousseau is my favorite artist & Lyle Mays is my favorite jazz piano/synths player. Mays has said his major influence has been...Stravinsky. And I liked Mays' music long before I knew he admires Stravinsky.

Jun. 21 2014 05:23 PM
Abby Ostrander

The 1st time I heard the "Rite of Spring" I thought it was an amazing piece.

Oct. 22 2013 08:02 PM
Areins Pelayo from USA

I saw this segment of the episode in my philosophy class and thought it was absolutely fascinating, but the "Musical Language" clip especially highlights how mind, music and language are not as distinct from one another as one may be inclined to assume. Anyway, since I found this podcast to be quite enlightening, I am definitely going to check out others.

Sep. 18 2013 09:22 AM
Stephen Malinowski

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 01:07 AM

Actually, 'Rite of Spring' was used in the dinosaur part of Fantasia. When the T-Rex ate the Stegosaurus. =)

Jul. 20 2012 06:20 PM
Eran from Earth

I think more context could be given to studies on the intervals as being consonant or dissonant. The study is more at fault than the reporters, but for example: the tritone is almost single handedly responsible for making a lot of jazz (certainly the blues) sound the way it does (...good). It's one thing to hear the way an interval sounds "naked," for lack of a better term, and far different to compare them with other "grounding" tones (also for lack of a better tone). Compare the tritone and major 7th (or diminished octave) seperatley as a single sonic entity, to the roles of both intervals played in any 7sharp9 chord.

Mar. 03 2012 04:11 PM
Jordan from Westfield, NJ

To G.G., I do not know where that cello piece comes from. But I do know that if you like it, then you'll like Stephen Katz, whose pizzicato cello music is simply stunning. And moving. And great for improv dancing :)

Aug. 02 2011 04:13 PM

Does anybody know what is the name of the cello piece played at the end of the podcast?

Feb. 27 2011 07:35 AM

This explains why not many like DubStep and this is why there's pride in liking an underground artist or new genre "before it became mainstream"- because your neurons are faster/more developed/better the majority. Sort of...

Feb. 14 2011 07:17 PM
Jonas Laberg from Oslo, Norway

That little tune which is used to communicate approval to babies, isn't that the same one as we use in a 'wolf whistle'?

Nov. 25 2010 04:50 PM
Bill from Musicology-Land

RadioLab is an amazing program. "Sometimes behaves so strangely" is a personal mantra of mine, but the take on the RITES OF SPRING is so urban-myth it leaves me wondering about the rest of the series.

Lots of the urban myth are self-negating: the dancers could DEMONSTRABLY not hear the music.

How did the audience hear it when the dancers could not?

What intermission? DAPHNIS ET CHLOE is much longer than that RITE OF SPRING, with no intermission.

Music of Charles Koechlin, that was much like Stravinsky's' was being greeted at the same time with polite yawns. Lots of RITE OF SPRING came out of Korsakov's MLADA in 1904.

Let's face it. The riots had nothing to do with the music. The Jockey Club almost killed TANNHAUSER in 1862 because they couldn't see their girlfriends' legs. Ditto RITE OF SPRING,

This myth has poisoned many minds of contemporary composers who will not stop until they create a riot.

Jul. 25 2010 02:01 AM
Tom from Worcester, MA

It is interesting how the Rite of Spring made people so angry. It actually reminds me of the opening musical bit of some of the old RadioLab episodes. There is that guy that says "WNYC" really slowly, and for some reason I hate it! It annoys me so much and I can't figure out why, and it only lasts a few seconds. If I had to sit with that feeling for an hour or however long the Rite of Spring is, I'd be eyeing some old lady to hit too.

Jun. 22 2010 11:17 PM
Sherry Tipton from Winchester, Kentucky

I was listening to this on the way home from work just now and was struck by the implications of dissonant sound causing a change in dopamine levels. Could this be why some people are drawn to different kinds of music? Perhaps the bipolar teenager is drawn to heavy metal because the dissonant sounds regulate his dopamine levels? Could we self-medicate with music without realizing it? I would love to see a study where the dopamine levels of those who are drawn to dissonant music is compared to those who are not.

Awesome show.


Mar. 05 2010 07:31 PM

Aaron, John:

Do you happen to have any links to information on what "actually" caused the riots. The only stuff I can find deals with Taruskin and I'd like to read some other accounts. Thanks!

Dec. 23 2009 02:42 PM
John from Boston

To Hartley-

While I agree with you that the subject of the "tension between the creative artist and the assimilating mind" is an interesting one, it's not even clear that anything like that was happening here at this riot. Some historians, considering the evidence, have concluded that the riot was staged. Others think it had to do with political factions or unrest. At the best case, it may have been a reaction to the choreography, but it's far from clear what caused this extreme reaction.

So, I agree that your topic would have been interesting. This segment just isn't a clear example for such a discussion.

That said, I do love the Radiolab in general (though this error has made me worry about the accuracy of segments in fields I don't know as much about).

Dec. 18 2009 01:44 AM
Hartley from West Chester PA

Love the show, regardless of whether Stravinsky's music caused the riot. To me, however, the missed opportunity here was the summary discussion about the tension between the creative artist and the assimilating mind. Perhaps this tension is better viewed as beng between the mind of one person and the minds of others (more apples to apples). From this perspective, you have a mind challenging other minds into a response; revealing the evolutionary dynamicism of the human mind and species. Once discovered, the adaptive mind can combine the new pattern with its previously known patterns to create something new. And on we learn. Thanks for the program.

May. 05 2009 11:51 PM
John from Boston

I agree with Aaron Novik's comment. This whole segment is based on a myth that was debunked decades ago. Taruskin is not the only one who has noted how Stravinsky didn't start promoting his music as being so novel until after the score was published in the 1920s, and he was consciously shaping his public persona to make it look like he was making a big break with tradition.

This segment really annoyed me when I listened to it when the show first aired, and I've recently heard psychologists referencing this show as evidence.

To answer the question posed by an earlier comment, most first-hand reviews of the premiere don't even mention Stravinsky, or, if they do, they only give his name as the composer without any further comment on the music. The combination of crazy choreography and political tensions at the time were the main causes of the riot.

Mar. 11 2009 04:18 PM
John from Vermont

Finding patterns in sounds is a survival skill if there are large beasties wanting to eat you.
An experienced hunter can tell the pattern of a squirrel crunching though the leaves from that of a deer or something else. Automatically determining which patterns are normal to the woods means you dont have to waste time & energy checking them out. More important, an unusual pattern, one associated with game or danger will put you instantly on alert. This is true visually as well.

Feb. 13 2009 01:05 PM
aaron novik from san francisco

one of the foremost stravinsky scholars Richard Taruskin, claims the riots had NOTHING to do with the music. it was because of the dance, which was anti ballet. people were yelling before the dissonant chords started and people never got to hear the music at all most likely.
the fact that no one rioted with just the music a year later is further testament to this.

Feb. 11 2009 02:58 AM
Chip from Louisville, KY

Just listened to the "Musical Language" show -- one of the few I haven't heard.

The "Rite of Spring" piece had me looking up the Joffrey Ballet's recreation on You Tube (Part 1 is at

I saw this years ago on PBS and thought, "This is stupid! This insults me and primitive people alike." Now, granted that my reaction was from a late-20th century perspective far removed from Paris 1913, I still have to wonder -- was it the music or the dancing that caused the riot? (Note that the triumph came when it was performed orchestrally, without the ballet.)

Anyway: What a great show you guys do.

Jun. 12 2008 11:59 AM
Jason Macres from Boston, MA

I wonder if Anne Fernald (Music as Touch at a Distance segment) has considered applying the same theory to animal communications in general. That is, how animals communicate with pitch inflection across species to uncover any subtle correlations.

Jun. 08 2008 07:37 AM
Vicki from Phoenix, AZ

I wonder if there are many first hand accounts written by those who attended the first performance of "Rite of Spring". It would be interesting to hear how they interpreted the behavior of the crowd and their own actions. Did they consider it a reasonable reaction to something that sounded so harsh and dissonant? Or did they feel somehow strangely out of control and not really know why?

May. 02 2008 02:36 AM
muddy from Denver Co

Oops! Strike the second "how"...and how!

Feb. 15 2008 11:32 PM
muddy from Denver Co

One wonders how the evolution of how such music as Rite has been received (even in the span of that first year) is colored by a pressure to conform, to jump on the bandwagon as it were. As usual there is probably a good deal of overlap in the nature/nurture dichotomy.

Feb. 15 2008 11:30 PM
kyle k from lincoln, ne

Um, to finish an unfinished point in my shoddy previous post:

When I see a movie from, say, the mid to late nineties, the gratuitous use of huge, bombastic orchestras at "emotional" or "important" points in a film is almost too much to bear; it feels cheap, easy, and artificial as opposed to letting the actors, editing, cinematography, et cetera to emerge spontaneously and "naturally."

Feb. 05 2008 07:26 PM
kyle k from lincoln, ne


one thing that seems particularly compelling to me in the realm of music and sound is taking place in soundtracks to film and television. Seen No Country For Old Men? There Will Be Blood? Cloverfield? Even the HBO series Extras or USA's the Office--the common feature is a total lack of musical backdrop (No Country), sparing use (Blood), or only as a traditional intro/outro, as is the case with Extras/the Office. Combine that with the anecdote about the guy who worked in the radio station's basement and who untrained his mind/ears to hundreds of years of music by listening to the medieval vocal music--that is, he went from being used to orchestras and electrical instrumentation to purely vocal sounds. When he emerged and heard what we would consider consummately pleasant and refined, he had to clap his hands over his ears.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: It isn't a neat, linear progression, where music starts simple and ends complex. It's all over the place; it's all context, and context always changes.

Feb. 05 2008 07:17 PM
Rebecca from austin

I think Lawrence is right on in his thinking, and no matter if it's been thought before.
We are inclined to look for patterns in images (think we can recognize a Yorkie and a Pit Bull as a dog), and we love to find ideas that corroborate our own theories (see The Black Swan).

good thought, Lawrence

Dec. 30 2007 07:59 PM

After hearing the stuff about consonance and dissonance, it got me thinking that our brain probably reacts the same way for other things besides sound. It is possible that our brain looks for patterns in images or even maybe ideas as well. Which is probably why change or new things sometimes scares us.

This is probably thought about before by someone else.

Oct. 15 2007 12:08 AM
david ruckel from Alaska

tried listening to this episode both streaming and downloading, and in both instances it quits right before the Rite of Spring chapter begins! such a bummer...

Aug. 27 2007 11:20 PM

So, now that artists run the gamut from consonance to pure random screeches, what can possibly be new for our brain? Noises at the edge of hearing? I'm sure that's been done as well. I think that's more sad, for the artist and for the individual listening.

Jul. 31 2007 02:02 PM
bleezer from US

It's *not* sad! Stravinski wasn't trying to inflict pain, he was trying to get others to hear what he heard. Imagine how elated he must have felt to realize that, finally, the public's ears were able to join him in this new plane of music, a plane on which he stood alone for so long. The only sad part would have been how frustrating it must have been for him to have to wait around for the rest of us to develop our ears to the point that we could join him there.

Jul. 21 2007 04:47 PM
Russ Woods from Bloomington, IN

What was the clip used for the example of contemporary, "after Stravinsky", abrasive sounds in music?

Jul. 11 2007 03:48 PM
Radio Lab from WNYC Radio

Alas, many listeners have written in to correct us on this fault! The animation for Rite of Spring in Fantasia was actually the story of the growth of life on Earth... a stormy little number from lava to dinosaurs. Thanks to everyone for filling us in!

Jul. 03 2007 12:22 PM
Jessi Pollack from ithaca, NY

Just a quick correction: the hosts say that Rite of Spring is used in Fantasia's "mushroom" section. The mushrooms were to part of the Nutcracker Suite--Rite of Spring was mostly accompanied by images of dinosaurs.

Jun. 30 2007 04:28 PM

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