Christmas Carol Talk

Dec 22, 2009 By Devin Powell, ISNS

Even without the lyrics, the tunes of some Christmas carols -- such as "Jingle Bells" or "Deck the Halls" -- sound uplifting. But the melodies of other songs like "We Three Kings" have a different, somber sound.

That's because the notes used to compose these pieces were borrowed from the sounds we make in everyday speech, according to research published in the latest issue of . The notes in Jingle Bells resemble patterns in excited talking, while the notes in We Three Kings resembled patterns in subdued talking.

When we speak, our vocal chords vibrate to produce a pitch. By moving the lips and the throat move, our bodies transform that pitch into a complicated pattern of many simultaneous sounds with different pitches -- which can be seen on a diagram called a spectra that shows how loud all the different frequencies in our speech are. Every vowel has a different pattern of sounds that allows ears of a listener to distinguish an "ah" from an "oo."

"Lots of people over the centuries have noted similarities between speech and music, but no one has compared the spectra of these two sound categories," said Purves.

When we get excited, the pitch produced by the vocal chords rises. This changes the pattern of sound for each vowel to mathematical relationships that resemble many of the chords used in "major" scales and songs like "Happy Birthday." In subdued speech, the pitch by the vocal chords drops, changing the vowel patterns to resemble "minor" chords used in carols such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

The research builds on previous work by Purves suggesting that every note on the piano and all the scales of notes used in music around the world -- from Japan to India to the West -- are fundamentally connected to patterns in the sounds of conversation.

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Disappearing vowels 'caught' on tape in US midwest

Oct 26, 2009

Try to pronounce the words "caught" and "cot." If you're a New Yorker by birth, the two words will sound as different as their spellings. But if you grew up in California, you probably pronounce them identically.

Lend me your ears -- and the world will sound very different

Jan 14, 2008

Recognising people, objects or animals by the sound they make is an important survival skill and something most of us take for granted. But very similar objects can physically make very dissimilar sounds and we are able to ...

Recommended for you

Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Apr 16, 2014

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world's big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is ...

Japan stem cell body splashes cash on luxury furniture

Apr 14, 2014

A publicly-funded research institute in Japan, already embattled after accusing one of its own stem cell scientists of faking data, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer Italian furniture, reportedly to use up ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...