Blue Tones

article image
Francesco Bongiorni /

It’s no surprise that music stirs up emotions, whether you’re listening to a Curtis Mayfield LP before a romantic dinner, letting off steam during your lunch break with Black Sabbath, or masochistically playing Elliott Smith after getting dumped. But scientists have now found that speech patterns can also mimic music’s ability to invoke some emotions.

“When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language,” blogs Ferris Jabr for Scientific American(June 17, 2010). Jabr spotlights the research of Tufts University’s Meagan Curtis, who found that actors asked to convey sadness in short phrases like “come here” and “let’s go” consistently relied on a minor third intonation. (Minor thirds are a ubiquitous musical interval–think the Beatles’ classic “Hey Jude” or “We Are the Champions” by Queen.)

“Historically, people haven’t thought of pitch patterns as conveying emotion in human speech like they do in music,” Curtis told Scientific American. “Yet, for sad speech there is a consistent pitch pattern. The aspects of music that allow us to identify whether that music is sad are also present in speech.”

Curtis hopes to investigate whether the minor third’s emotional resonance is strictly a Western phenomenon. She speculates: “Who knows if they are using the same intervals in, say, Hindi?”

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.