In the post 1985, The Year I Started Listening we explored the two core aspects of sonic communication. The passive process of hearing and the active process of listening. In the post Why It’s Good To Talk, Trust, Think And Feel we explored the role of spoken language in sonic communication and particularly why - It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it - is considered a universal truth. I began that with the inspiration of Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech which has influenced people ever since and was studied by Barack Obama before the creation of his Yes we can anthem. Why do certain speeches and phrases resonate so much? Simplistically it’s the emotion behind the words, but linguistically it’s how that emotion manifests itself through the way we change volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm. The more emotional we say something, the more musical it sounds. It is this link between voice and music we’re going to explore, voice is music and music is voice.
From 1982 until 1987 every Monday to Friday school term evening I sang evensong in Tewkesbury Abbey. We would also rehearse for an hour in the morning. Music played a big part in my life and education. There are three musical elements to an evensong, the Psalms, the Magnificat / Nunc Dimittis, and the Anthem. The Psalms were tedious, they were chants sung back and forth between Decani and Cantoris, the two sides of the choir. They were often long, boring and hypnotic to sing as a young boy, but relaxing to listen to now. The Magnificat / Nunc Dimittis are canticles and were more interesting to sing, basically they were the same lyrics each night but to different melodies. The part we always enjoyed singing was the Anthem, these would sometimes include such classics as Zadok the Priest... No... Think Champions League, and would also mark the end of the service, Hallelujah! That’s how we felt as young choristers and I suspect the release of endorphins was the intention for congregations over the many centuries.
Sound is difficult to ignore, it’s immersive, affects us regardless of where attention is focused and is able to manipulate a group of peoples’ collective emotions. The church, being perhaps the oldest organised communication experts out there, understood life was hard beyond their gilded walls, so designed services to stimulate the senses to generate emotional elation, from the mundane to joy, from the drudgery of daily life to beauty and splendour, from chants to champions league, from godlessness to godliness.
We instinctively and subconsciously add musical elements to our voices because we’ve implicitly learnt the tiny changes in volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm that enable us to understand the emotional state of the person in front of us, and convey our emotional state to them. However, I hadn’t heard a demonstration of quite how musical we sound when we speak, until I heard ‘sometimes behave so strangely’, the Speech to Song Illusion from the perceptual and cognitive psychologist, Diana Deutsch. I first came across it in this excellent Radio Lab Podcast.
The importance of sound in communicating emotions is perhaps why music and storytelling are so fundamental to human culture. Speech and song are so intrinsically linked because what is story telling if it isn’t adding emotional context to a set of actions and outcomes, more emotion, more musical it sounds. The greatest storytellers from Shakespeare to the Beatles have focused on the pillars of human emotion - love, power, fate, revenge, society, dreams. Legendary adman, Sir John Hegarty was recently quoted as stating, ‘While technology creates opportunities, it’s creativity that creates value’, and creativity in advertising is all about emotional storytelling. Interestingly this idea has been elegantly demonstrated in Google’s Oscar nominated virtual reality short film ‘Pearl’, a story that uses music as it’s central theme.
So when you have something to say, think about the way you say it, think about the emotion you want to convey and the way it comes across musically and if that fails to make an impression, sing. Some phrases just stick and you can’t read them without hearing the specifics of volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm in the way they they were originally delivered, from ‘I have a dream’ to ‘you talking to me?’ or ‘show me the money!’ or even, ‘I’m luv’in It’. The American Film Institute’s 100 years, one hundred movies quotes has ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ from Gone with the Wind in the number one spot, a film with a link to perhaps the greatest example of music storytelling of all time and significantly predates Dr King’s speech. I’ll let a far more accomplished writer than me explain the story of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, I recommend you listen to the song while you read. A brilliant example of cognitive dissonance through music’s ability to subconsciously seduce while simultaneously, consciously shock and persuade.