Christmas Carol Talk

December 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: Music and speech based on human biology (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Wagner's 'difficult' reputation unwarranted says research

July 1, 2009

The composer Richard Wagner is well-known, even notorious, for writing operas that can challenge both performers and listeners. A new study published in the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America reveals that Wagner set ...

Disappearing vowels 'caught' on tape in US midwest

October 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

January 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

Are palaeontologists naming too many species?

March 14, 2018

A comprehensive new study looking at variations in Ichthyosaurus, a common British Jurassic ichthyosaur (sea-going reptile) also known as 'Sea Dragons', has provided important information into recognizing new fossil species.

Pterosaurs went out with a bang, not a whimper

March 13, 2018

Fossils of six new species of pterosaurs - giant flying reptiles that flew over the heads of the dinosaurs - have been discovered by a research team led by the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, revealing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.