Aug 19, 2010

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 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).

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Speaker 1:

Listener-supported WNYC Studios.

Speaker 2:

Now? Now? Okay. You're listening to Radiolab.

Diana D.:

I'll continue. We're here to report the first large scale study comparing the prevalence of absolute pitch into normal populations by means of-

Jad:

This professor Diana Deutsch.

Diana D.:

Diana Deutsch. Well, yeah. I'm going to turn down my headphone [inaudible 00:00:00:41], and I'm a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

Jad:

Can you still hear me, Diana?

Diana D.:

Okay. Hello.

Jad:

Diana studies sound, how humans perceive sound. She's a scientist. She has a lab. But every so often she will also release CDs, these CDs of audio demonstrations that she uses in her research. And that's why we called because it was in the production of her second CD that she stumbled onto the weirdest phenomenon.

Diana D.:

Well, I'll tell you what happened, is that when you do post production, as you know, of speech you loop things, loop things, loop things so that you can zero in on Ps that sound too loud. [Inaudible 00:00:01:21], Ss that sounds too sharp, and so on. And so you put things on loops in order to fine tune the way the speech sounds. So I had this particular phrase on a loop and forgot about it.

Jad:

What phrase was this?

Diana D.:

It's a phrase that occurs at the beginning of the CD in which I say, "The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible." As to seem quite impossible.

Diana D.:

Now I had, "Sometimes behave so strangely" looped. The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely. Sometimes behave so strangely. Just those few words, "Sometimes behave so strangely." And forgot about it. Sometimes behave so strangely. Sometimes behave so strangely.

Jad:

So here's what happened. Diana leaves her studio. She closes the door. Goes into the kitchen to make some tea. All the while this loop is wearing away in the background. As she's sipping her tea she thinks, "Is someone singing? Who's singing?"

Diana D.:

I heard what sounded like song in the background.

Jad:

She realized, "Wait a second. That's not singing. That's me talking."

Diana D.:

That very phrase, "So strangely." But at this point it appeared to be sung rather than spoken. Sometimes behave so strangely. This is, "Sometimes behave so strangely." Right? You still hear the words, but they're some words rather than spoken words.

Jad:

It's weird. It just switches at a certain point, three or four repetitions in?

Diana D.:

Right.

Jad:

It's going, it's going, and then pow becomes music. And then now none of us can get it out of our head. The whole office is like, "Sometimes behave so strangely. Sometimes behave so strangely."

Diana D.:

And you know what? If you do this demo and then you go back to the original sentence, it sounds like speech to begin with. And when you come to that very phrase, I seem to be bursting into song.

Diana D.:

"The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible."

Diana D.:

I have to say, this can continue for months and months. It's sort of like your brain gets altered for that particular phrase, and it continues to sound like singing for a very, very long time.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes behave so strangely. Sometimes behave so strangely.

Jad:

All right, so here we have just one small indication that music is... Well, it behaves very strangely. I mean think about this. We started with some basic speech, repeated it a few times. Somewhere along the way it leaped into song. How did it change like that? And if that's all it takes to turn something into music, then what exactly is music really?

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes behave so strangely.

Jad:

This is Radiolab. Today's program is about answering that question or trying to, in any case. I'm Jad Abumrad. Here with me is Robert Krulwich, my partner in crime.

Robert:

It is a little hard to get out of your head.

Jad:

I know. I know. I know.

Robert:

It is really weird. Yeah.

Jad:

Okay, so this hour, what are we doing?

Robert:

We are going to try-

Jad:

And we will probably fail.

Robert:

Yes, we will fail, but we will make an earnest effort to try to find the ingredients of music, both its basis in language, it's basis in physics, it's basis in your brain. We'll look everywhere we can, software, trying to find out what music is made of, and why it touches us so intimately.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes behave so strangely.

Jad:

And touches us, sometimes, not in a good way. If you've ever had this experience of going to a concert, hearing some music, and it just made you upset for some reason, irrationally upset, almost like you wanted to hurt someone. If that rings a bell, there's a segment later in the show you will not want to miss.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes.

Jad:

This is Radiolab. Stick around.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes they behave so strangely.

LaGuardia Chorus:

I completely messed up. [crosstalk 00:05:45]

Jad:

All right. Shall we start?

Robert:

Sure.

Jad:

Well, first, thanks to LaGuardia High School chorus and Robert Apostle. They were the voices you just heard.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes they behave so...

Jad:

We'll hear more of them later.

Robert:

So let's explore a little bit closely this connection between language and music. You think of them as separate. The thing is they're really closely related says neuroscientist, Mark [inaudible 00:06:06].

Neuroscientist:

When we speak, we sing. You know how to use the pitch of your voice to convey emotion and meaning. Like, "I went to the store?" Just because I raised the pitch, the note if you will, you interpret that as an interrogative. A monotonic speech, talking at the same rate and rhythm in the same pitch and loudness. I mean that is not how humans talk.

Jad:

But humans talk in all kinds of different ways, in different languages. Each language has its own musical personality. German is different, than French, is different than Swahili. And if you look at those differences closely, there are all kinds of things we can learn about music. Take Diana Deutsch.

Diana D.:

Okay.

Jad:

She's recently been looking at tone languages. Just published her results and the results are startling. Diana, before we start, what exactly is a tone language?

Diana D.:

Okay. In tone languages, words take on different meanings depending upon the tones in which they are annunciated. For example, Mandarin has four tones. And the word ma in Mandarin means mother in the first tone, hemp in the second tone, horse in the third tone, and a reproach in the fourth tone.

Jad:

Could you say them?

Diana D.:

Would you like me to?

Jad:

Yeah, could you demonstrate?

Diana D.:

Oh, I thought you were-

Jad:

Well I have them on CD, but I'd rather hear you say them.

Diana D.:

Well, okay, so excuse my bad pronunciation, but I'll try. Ma means mother. Ma means hemp. Ma means horse. And ma is a reproach.

Jad:

Huh? So conceivably if you screwed up the tones, you could call your mom a horse.

Diana D.:

Yes, indeed. In fact, there're quite a lot of jokes where Westerners who don't speak the tones, right say terrible things. [foreign language 00:08:09] You have to be very careful. [foreign language 00:08:12]

Jad:

See, this is a basic difference in English. We don't really worry about pitch. We can say our words up here, or down here, or gliss it up, or bend it down. It's all the same. Not so with tone languages.

Jad:

In any case, this is where it gets interesting. One day Diana is working with some Mandarin speakers and she notices something. There were these words, these words that they would say where they would all hit precisely the same note with their voices. Not just close to one another either. Exactly, precisely, and consistently the same pitch. Even on different days.

Diana D.:

In fact, would you like me to play for you one person reciting a list of 12 Mandarin tones on two different days?

Jad:

Yeah. Definitely.

Diana D.:

First you have the first word spoken on day one.

Mandarin:

[foreign language 00:09:09].

Diana D.:

Followed by the same word spoken on day two.

Mandarin:

[foreign language 00:09:12].

Diana D.:

Then you have the second word spoken on day one.

Mandarin:

[foreign language 00:09:15].

Diana D.:

Followed by the same word spoken day two.

Mandarin:

[foreign language 00:09:18.

Diana D.:

And so on. And that way [foreign language 00:09:21] here you can [foreign language 00:09:21] see the consistency. [foreign language 00:00:09:24] is going to appear as though [foreign language 00:09:26] the words are being repeated immediately. [foreign language 00:09:28] But in fact, the repetitions are covering entirely different days.

Jad:

So each of those word pairs came out of the mouth of one person separated by 24 hours?

Diana D.:

Oh, much more than that. Something like a week. And it was a remarkable consistency. [foreign language 00:09:45].

Jad:

Well, that'd be like a saying the word mom always at this note right here. Mom, mom, mom.

Diana D.:

Well I concluded that basically this was a form of perfect pitch. [foreign language 00:00:09:57]

Robert:

I've never quite understood what perfect pitch is to be honest.

Jad:

You don't know what that is?

Robert:

No, should I? I mean, I know I should, [crosstalk 00:10:12].

Jad:

But as a musician growing up perfect pitch is... It's the thing. It's the thing you wish you had. And none of us had.

Jad:

Basically, it's like having a tuning fork in your brain. Here, I'll give you an analogy. Okay. You see this a coffee cup I'm holding?

Robert:

Yeah.

Jad:

What color is it?

Robert:

Brown.

Jad:

And you knew that how?

Robert:

Through my eyes.

Jad:

Right? You didn't need me to put this brown coffee cup next to my blue jeans in order to see the brown.

Robert:

No I didn't.

Jad:

I mean it's absolute brown.

Robert:

It's absolute brown.

Jad:

Perfect pitch people have that with pitch. They hear a pitch, they know exactly what note it is. The rest of us have to run to the piano.

Robert:

So if we hear a ding from an elevator, can they name the note? Is that-

Jad:

Yeah, that's exactly it. Anything with a pitch like a horn honk. They could tell you that horn is an F. Or those church bells, they're alternating between B flat and B. And if the faucet were dripping they could say, "That faucet is dripping, and it's D sharp." They don't even have to think about it. They just know.

Diana D.:

It used to be that the note names would jump out at me to the extent that it would even be a nuisance.

Jad:

Diana Deutsch is actually one of these lucky people.

Robert:

And why is that good?

Jad:

Well, it's really rare. It only happens like once every 10,000 people here in America or Europe.

Robert:

Yeah, but so does turning your tongue into a U.

Jad:

Yeah, yeah. Hold up. Hold up. And of the people who have it... Well, let's see. How should I say this? If you look in your music history textbooks, so you will see that every famous composer, the really big ones...

Diana D.:

Like Mozart, and Bach, and Beethoven.

Jad:

They all had it.

Diana D.:

Mendelssohn. The list goes on and on.

Jad:

So if you have perfect pitch, on some level you are closer to them. You've got the gift. [inaudible 00:12:19] Let's get back to Diana Deutsch.

Diana D.:

Okay.

Jad:

Okay. Let's talk about your latest experiment. That's the one I'm really interested in. Okay. So you compared Chinese kids to American kids to see who has perfect pitch more. So explain how this works. You had a group of Chinese music students, a group of American music students at the Eastman School of Music here in New York. You play them a bunch of notes, I imagine, in a room, and ask them to guess what those notes were?

Diana D.:

Right.

Jad:

Now how did that work exactly?

Diana D.:

Well the test consisted of piano tones, which began on the C below middle C. It's this note. And extended up three octaves all the way to that note.

Jad:

That's a big range.

Diana D.:

Yeah, 36 notes.

Jad:

Can you demonstrate?

Diana D.:

Sure. Yes. Here is six tones such as where given in the test.

Jad:

So you would have played those notes to both sets of kids and asked them to name the notes without going to the piano. Well, what were the notes really?

Diana D.:

What these notes were D, E, E, G sharp, C sharp, D sharp and G.

Jad:

What were the results?

Diana D.:

Well, it turns out the Chinese group far outperformed the Eastern group. Of those students who started musical training at ages four and five, 74% of the Chinese group show perfect pitch. But 14% of the U.S. non-tonal language [crosstalk 00:13:47].

Jad:

Wow, 74%?

Diana D.:

The Beijing group was nine times roughly more likely to show perfect pitch than the American, English-speaking American group.

Jad:

Jesus that's a staggering difference.

Diana D.:

It's a staggering difference.

Jad:

And it's your hunch that the difference is because they speak a tone language?

Diana D.:

That's my... I mean it's known that in the first year of life, say from age six months up to, a little past a year, infants learn features of their native language. This is a very, very important stage.

Diana D.:

Let's suppose that tone and the absolute pitch of tones is a feature which is potentially available to anyone. Babies who are exposed only to an international language such as English are not given the opportunity to acquire tones. Then they're going to be at a real disadvantage when they come later on to learn to take music lessons.

Jad:

So you think that as there... Let me ask you this. As they're learning their language, which includes inherently music to some degree, they are essentially learning two languages as they learn one. Is that right?

Diana D.:

As a matter of fact. If you take the first tone ma, it's a flat tone. It's really sung. Compared with English speech it's really more like song than-

Jad:

That's always been the stereotype of the Chinese languages. It's very sing songy.

Diana D.:

Yes. [foreign language 00:15:28] For example, the third tone in Mandarin, ma, is sort of like a J type pattern. The second tone, which is a gentle upward gliss, ma. The fourth tone, which is a rapid downward gliss, ma. I mean these are all kind of musical relationships. Given the evidence on absolute pitch one could speculate further and say, well maybe other features of music are also enhanced for individuals who start off learning tone language.

Jad:

So, then here's my big question. Could this explain the experience that I had? And I think a lot of people have this experience when they're taking music lessons and playing little piddly pieces like Frere Jacques. And here are these Chinese girls, right, who are playing [inaudible 00:16:19]. They're brilliant. Is this why?

Diana D.:

Well, I think it's a viable hypothesis. I mean evidently it could be something else. There could be something else going on.

Jad:

Like what?

Diana D.:

I mean one could argue that instead it might be genetic and so on, but-

Jad:

That's such a boring theory.

Diana D.:

It's a boring theory. And furthermore, we don't have to assume that knowing what we do about exposure to tone language in very early childhood as a-

Jad:

It's just not fair.

Diana D.:

And I think we can look at it other way around. Here we have a faculty that had been thought to be confined to a few rare individuals who are just extraordinarily gifted that might, in fact, be available to any individual provided they're given the right exposure at a critical period. And that raises the question of what are the sorts of abilities could be brought out if we only knew just what to do. There may be much more human potential than we had realized.

Jad:

Diana Deutsch is a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego.

Robert:

Music psychology?

Jad:

Music psychology. And, as I mentioned earlier, she's also the releaser of two CDs.

Robert:

Yes. I forgot.

Jad:

She had two CDs. One's called Musical Illusions and Paradoxes. And the other one is called Phantom Words and Other Curiosities.

Robert:

And what would she put on a CD exactly?

Jad:

She puts these little audio pieces that she uses in her research. The stuff, I guess, that she will play to subjects as she tests them. And she puts these on CDs because they're fun to listen to.

Robert:

Is it like an ear test or-

Jad:

Yeah, sort of. We've actually put a couple on our website.

Robert:

Well what do they sound like? Just give us a little sample.

Jad:

All right. I'll do some samples. There is the chromatic illusion. Kind of has a carnival feel to it. There's also the cambiata illusion.

Robert:

Oh, the cambiata illusion.

Jad:

And, of course, the phantom word experiments.

Robert:

Phantom word experiments.

Jad:

None of those pieces are going to make any kind of sense unless you visit our website, radiolab.org where all will be explained.

Robert:

Coming up, fashionable French ladies in elegant dresses throw things at innocent musicians.

Jad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert:

Well maybe not so innocent. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.

Speaker 2:

You're listening to Radiolab from New York Public Radio, WNYC and NPR.

LaGuardia Chorus:

Sometimes they behave so strangely. Sometimes they behave so strangely. Sometimes they behave so strangely. Sometimes they behave so strangely. Sometimes they behave so strangely. Sometimes they behave so strangely.

 

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