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Re: Why is high high?

  I suspect that the use of the words "high" and "low" with reference
to pitch is common to most of the Indo-European languages (the ones
you mentioned, as well as Russian, Spanish, etc.).  I do not know
whether this usage extends to non-IE languages, though I suspect it
may.  The fact that it is common in IE languages does not necessarily
mean that it is indigenous.  It may well be that it came into the
various languages by means of the technical literature, i.e., readers
of different linguistic backgrounds reading the same scientific texts
(original or translation) of the Greeks, Arabs, Romans, etc.; it might
even be later.  Anyway, I do not suppose it predates some sort of
study of wave mechanics (however, I may be wrong).
   There have been studies done that have showed that, as the
frequency of  a sound increases, so does its perceived elevation.  The
first was by Pratt in 1930 (replicated by Trimble in 1934).  You might
want to look at the following:

   Roffler & Butler, "Localization of tonal stimuli in the vertical
plane," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 43:1260-1266
   Butler, "Does tonotopicity subserve the perceived elevation of a
sound source?," Federation Proceedings, 33:1920-1923 (1974).
   Rogers & Butler, "The linkage between stimulus frequency and covert
peak areas as it relates to monaural localization," Perception &
Psychophysics, 52:536-546 (1992).

I doubt that this phenomenon is the "cause" of our use of the words
"high" and "low" to describe high- and low-frequency sounds.  My
feeling is that the use of these words in this context is learned -
small children do not use such words to describe pitch - and is
probably only a result of the physical acoustics (i.e., the fact that
the numbers corresponding to frequency go from low to high).
Colloquially, this usage might come from the musical scale, with which
most people are to some extent familiar.


Robert S.  Bolia
Research Scientist
Air Force Research Laboratory
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH

>>> Pawel Kusmierek <pq@nencki.gov.pl> 08/26 5:10 AM >>>
Dear list-members,

In several Indo-European languages (e.g. English, German, Italian,
Polish) words 'high' and 'low' are used to describe sounds of big
and small frequency, respectively.  Do any of you know if this
relation appears in other (especially, non-Indo-European)

Moreover, what may be the source of the relation?  What has a
vertical linear distance (high/low) to do with sound frequency?
When you look at people, the relation of size and frequency
appears to be inverse: usually tall ('high')people (men) talk and sing
at lower frequencies than short ('low') people (women, children). Big
things sound lower than small things: a piccolo is smaller than
a tuba.

I read in a review that as frequency of a sound increases, the
perceived location rises in elevation (I have not the original papers
yet).  Could this be the cause?

But what are the physiological bases of this perceptual
Is it caused by some selective attenuation/amplification by pinnae?
Or is it a property of auditory centers in brain? Is it inherited or

If it is inherited, it should have an evolutionary cause: did high-
frequency sounds come to an australopithecus from high elevation
(birds)? and low frequency sounds from low elevation (sounds of
buffalo's steps transmitted via ground)?

If the perceptual phenomenon is learned, then again: do high
frequency sounds come to an infant from high elevation and low
sounds from low elevation?

Can anyone comment my questions?

Pawel Kusmierek


Pawel Kusmierek
Department of Neurophysiology
Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology
3, Pasteur St., 02-093 Warsaw, Poland

tel. (48-22) 659 85 71 ex 379 or 388
fax  (48-22) 822 53 42
E-mail pq@nencki.gov.pl
ICQ 11740175

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