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Re: sometimes behave so strangely

Dear Al (and List),

You raise some very interesting points. I don't think that the explanation lies in semantic satiation, because the words (vowels and consonants) are still heard very clearly, even though the phrase appears to be sung. I do agree, though, that the answer lies, at least in part, in the pitch modulations - though exactly what happens isn't clear. At the ASA meeting I presented an illustration showing the pitch tracing of my original rendition, and that of a subject repeating what she heard after multiple repetitions. The contours of all the syllables were flattened in the subject's rendition, and it's my strong impression that people literally begin to hear the contours as flattened. I'd be happy to send this illustration to anyone who is interested.

You also raise the point that the transformation of the phrase from speech to song endures - so that when people listen again to the full sentence, I appear to burst into song. This , to my mind, is a particularly puzzling aspect of the effect. People have told me that the effect is still present, unattenuated, even months later - and this was certainly my experience. As you point out, perhaps the most important question raised by this demonstration is why people don't always hear speech as song. After all, the vowel components of words are harmonic complexes - yet the pitch characteristics of speech are usually suppressed in perception.

The composer Mussorggsky wrote in a letter to Rimsky-Korsokoff:

'whatever speech I hear, no matter who is speaking ... my brain immediately sets to working out a musical exposition for this speech' . On listening to his music - particularly his song cycles - one can deliberately flip one's perception to a different mode, and hear, very convincingly, the intonation of Russian speech. I've often wondered whether Mussorgsky may have heard all speech as we hear 'sometimes behave so strangely' after repetition.

All best,



Professor Diana Deutsch Department of Psychology University of California, San Diego 9500 Gilman Dr. #0109 La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA

858-453-1558 (tel)
858-453-4763 (fax)


On Dec 12, 2006, at 10:08 PM, Al Bregman wrote:

Dear Diana (and List),

Yes indeed! The repetitions do seem to comvert spoken speech to singing.

I wonder whether your phenomenon isn't related to that of "semantic
satiation", in which a word that is repeated over and over tends to
lose its meaning and to be perceived as a sequence of sounds.  The
meaning is not lost in an all-or-nothing fashion, but tends to get
weaker and weaker.  (See

In the case of your demonstration there is a strongly modulated F0
(intonation contour) over the phrase.  It may be that when we hear
ordinary speech, which contains pitch modulation (an acoustic
phenomenon that is present in both music and speech), the speech and
musical schemas are both evoked and compete with one another.
However, when the cues for speech are dominant (i.e., continuous and
non-repeating modulation of F0, without pausing on particular
pitches), the musical interpretation is suppressed.  But when the
phrase is repeated many times, a satiation and weakening of the speech
interpretation occurs (as in semantic satiation), thereby allowing the
musical interpretation to become more dominant.  Of course it doesn't
become completely dominant, or else we wouldn't hear speech at all.
Rather there is an intermediate form of activation in which we hear
both speech and music (i.e., singing).

In your demonstration, immediately after hearing the phase as melodic,
when we listen to the whole sentence again, we still maintain an
association between the phrase and the melodic interpretation.  I
wonder how long this aftereffect lasts.

Your demonstration raises the fascinating question of why we don't
ALWAYS hear speech as singing.  It may be that persons with absolute
pitch come closer to this than the rest of us do, or at least can turn
it on when they want to.  A number of years ago, I asked Poppy Crum, a
graduate student of mine who had absolute pitch, whether she could
assign musical note values to my intonation pattern as I said a
phrase.  She replied that this was easy, and gave me a sequence of
note names.

Whatever the explanation of your phenomenon, it is truly interesting,
and raises some challenging questions.  I hope you yourself, or some
of our colleagues, will be able to shed light on the phenomenon
through a series of analytical experiments.

All the best,


Albert S. Bregman, Emeritus Professor
Psychology Department, McGill University
1205 Docteur Penfield Avenue
Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 1B1.
    Tel: (514) 484-2592, (514) 398-6103
    Fax: (514) 484-2592

On 12/12/06, Diana Deutsch <ddeutsch@xxxxxxxx> wrote:
Dear list,

I've had a number of requests for the sound demonstration I presented at
the recent ASA meeting in Honolulu, in which the spoken phrase 'sometimes
behave so strangely' following several repetitions, appears convincingly
to be sung rather than spoken - though there is no musical context and no
physical transformation of the sound. This demonstration, together with
spoken commentary, is on my CD 'Phantom Words and Other Curiosities'
(available from Philomel Records - http://www.philomel.com).

The sound demonstration is also posted  on the website:


and it's described in the booklet accompanying the CD, which is posted at:


Happy Holidays!

Diana Deutsch