Tag Archives: music

The Speech/Song Illusion

This post was contributed by Rosy Edey, PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences. Rosy attended a Birkbeck Science Week 2016 event on Thursday 14  April – ‘Talk: The Speech/Song Illusion’ (led by Dr Adam Tierney)


Sadly all good things must come to an end, and the finale of Birkbeck’s 2016 Science Week was a compelling musical one, by one of Birkbeck’s newest members of the Psychology Department, Dr Adam Tierney. In a humorous and engaging way Adam took the audience through the scientific story of the “evolution of music”. Music seems almost completely purposeless, and let’s face it a little bit strange, so why do we love it so much?

What is music?

Adam placed the first known musical instrument (an intricate bone flute) back 40,000 years, which was way before the first record of written word (5000 years ago), but much later than (a good estimate of) when we first evolved to make vocalisations (400,000 years ago). The absolute origin of music is obviously very difficult to pinpoint – as it is possible (and probable) that way before we built tools – like the bone flute – to make music, we were signing our hearts out in the moonlight.

This questionable timing of the birth of music raises the question: what came first, speech or music? Whichever one came first, if one evolved from the other we would expect music and language to share similar characteristics. Indeed, Adam presented evidence that both the huge varieties of globally spoken languages and music from around the world share common universalities (which at first seemed very unlikely based on the diversity of music that was perfectly demonstrated through a bizarre example of washing machine “music” and also a collection of songs from the playlist from the Voyager I and II spacecraft gold plates).

These shared acoustic qualities included alternating beat patterns, descending melodic contours, and increases in final phrase duration. Using the very complicated sounding “Normalised Pairwise Variability Index” (i.e. jargon for a measure of rhythmic alteration, or a measure of paired stress in phrases) Adam showed there were also commonalities between languages and music within and between specific countries (basically English music sounds English, and French sounds French, but English music/ language does not sound like French music/language). All of these beautiful subtleties hidden in the acoustics of spoken word and music provide vast amounts of data, which signal meaning to the listener. These underlying similarities do hint that music and speech are distant cousins.

Music as Speech with added extras

Playing music with speech can change it into a song; The Jazzy Sarah Palin Interview was a good example of this:


And it seems even without music our brains can transform speech into music. Diana Deutsch discovered this phenomenon in 1995, while looping some spoken data.

After several iterations the phrase “sometimes behave so strangely” no longer sounded like speech, and had converted into song (I now cannot even read this phrase without hearing the tune). All the phrases in Adam’s Corpus of Illusion Stimuli turned into singing, but interestingly, the “control” sentences didn’t have the same effect. This illusion appears to be a useful tool to test further the idea of music evolution and ask more detailed questions, such as: “what is required for speech to become song?” and “what mechanisms are going on in our brains when we change speech into song?”

Testing the Science

Dr Adam Tierney

Dr Adam Tierney

Adam has pulled out the acoustic elements that predict what speech phrases are heard as song. He suggests there are two main factors which induce the illusion; increased beat variability and increased pitch intervals. Remarkably, there is large variability between people’s experience, and being a trained musician doesn’t improve your ability to detect the illusion.

So what is going on in the brain? Adam’s hunch was that these ‘musical’ phrases are processed in the same way as when listening to speech, but with a little added extra. And this does in fact seem to be the case, we activate a similar network to when we hear normal speech, but extra activation in regions that are highly pitch sensitive (e.g. Heschl’s Gyrus – a very early part of the auditory system), and also motor regions (e.g. precentral gyrus – which hosts a map of the body, but specifically the mouth region) when we listen to the ‘song’. Interestingly, there were no regions that were more active for just speech over the song phrases. Adam suggested participants were imagining singing and tapping along to the beat, and processing the pitch more deeply in these ‘song’ phrases. This evidence neatly fits the behavioural data, showing that phrases that have a strong rhythm and more of a melody are processed differently by the brain, which results in them being distorted from speech into song.

Although it is virtually impossible to know the true origin of music, Adam managed to make quite a convincing case that song is just speech with some ribbons on, and quite possibly did evolve from speech.

Find out more


The Bellwether Revivals – book reading

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Benjamin Wood’s debut novel The Bellwether Revivals (Simon & Schuster) was published in February this year, and is currently longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. The Guardian praised it as “an accomplished novel, suffused with intelligence and integrity.” Here, Benjamin outlines the musical themes at the heart of the book, from which he will read at a special Hubbub event for Arts Week on Monday 14th May 2012.

My relationship with music has always been more visceral than intellectual. By that I mean I was drawn to teaching myself to play an instrument as a teenager, not because I wanted to comprehend the mechanics of music, but because I saw it as emotional release. In some of the most difficult periods of my life—as I’m sure is the case for most people—I have sought consolation in music, be it the mournful hush of a Jeff Buckley vocal, the skin-prickling harmonies of a church choir, or the searing hum of Bach’s cello suites. The impact a piece of music can have on our state of being—how a simple melody can comfort and relieve us, elevate our spirits, and bring memories as vivid as any picture to the surface of our minds—is what The Bellwether Revivals aims to explore.

In writing the novel, I wanted to find out if the redemptive power of music could be explained in definite terms. And so I began reading into music theory and got acquainted with the more cerebral aspects of music that I’d skirted around in my younger days. The themes within The Bellwether Revivals began to emerge when I discovered the writings of the largely forgotten Baroque composer, Johann Mattheson. I approached the novel wanting to build a story around a character who claims to be able to manipulate the properties of music for healing effects, and, before long, I conceived of Eden Bellwether, a gifted organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, who is inspired by Mattheson’s theories. I was also intrigued by the idea of what full-blooded commitment to honing musical technique might do to a boy and his family, the rivalry and tensions this could create amongst them, and how such profound musical talent might alter a person’s perspective on the world.

Through his skill and scholarship, Eden finds a way to connect the theoretical foundations of music with its more elusive, visceral powers—for Eden, the sadness we feel when we hear a sad song is something that can be designed and controlled by the composer. The lives of the characters in The Bellwether Revivals hinge upon how much they believe in the restorative properties of Eden’s music. The book investigates what might happen if the refrain of a cello, or the sound of a church organ, or the swell of voices singing in harmony, could hold more influence over us than we ever expected.

For more details on Benjamin Wood, you can visit his website at: www.benjamin-wood.com

For further details on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, please visit: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/study/ug/creativewriting/UBACWRIT.html


Music and Class, a talk by Susan Alexander-Max

This post was contributed by Dr Nathalie Wourm, a lecturer in French Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Cultures and Languages and co-director of Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community (BRAKC)

Susan Alexander-Max is not only a PhD student here in the Department of European Cultures and Languages at Birkbeck, she is also a renowned musician, a fortepianist and clavichordist. Susan is also the founder and director of The Music Collection, a gathering of world famous musicians dedicated to the performance with authentic instruments, of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and their contemporaries, around the fortepiano. It was a pleasure to welcome her for a talk on music and class, as part of the seminar series organised by Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community.

Susan’s PhD in French studies focuses on writer Marcel Proust, and his relationship to music. Here, she combined her interests, to provide examples of the discussion of class taking place in music, from Molière to Beaumarchais, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, and film director Alain Resnais. But the premise of her argument centred around two famous works, ‘Summertime’ by George Gershwin, and John Cage’s 4′33″. Susan started by “performing” 4′33″ in front of a silent keyboard and empty sheet music. The sounds heard by the audience at 43 Gordon Square were numerous, from the loud tick tock of the room’s clock, to the buzzing noises of the projector and computer, to the outside sound of ambulance sirens and students chatting on the pavement. The point was made; the deconstruction of preconceived views of what constitutes music is at the source of Susan’s argument that music is classless, but that defining it is what creates boundaries and social divisions. Other examples of the deconstruction of music were taken from Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Michael Haneke’s film Caché and were convincing in showing how blurry the limit between spoken language and song can be, or between everyday noises and the playing of instruments. In that sense, Susan argued, defining what is and what is not music is an artificial exercise. The bourgoisie use their definition of music as a tool to isolate themselves from the rest of society. Susan’s talk was topical, as it is only a week ago that, in The Guardian, Daniel Barenboim was criticising ‘the traditional training of musicians in conservatoires around the world, accusing them of isolating young performers from the realities of politics, ideas and history.’ Barenboim claimed that he wanted to be ‘a terrorist for music education’ (The Guardian, 25 April 2012).