Sep 1, 2023

Touch at a Distance


LULU MILLER: Hey, it's Lulu. To start today, I want to play you a sentence that I heard 20 years ago that changed the course of my life.

ANNE FERNALD: Sound is kind of touch at a distance.

LULU: I was 21 years old, living in Queens, working at a coffee shop. More than a little lonely, unsure what I was doing with my life and then ...

ANNE FERNALD: Sound is kind of touch at a distance.

LULU: ... those six eerie words floated out of the radio. I didn't know it yet, but it was this brand new show called Radiolab that was doing something with sound and laying and music that almost no one was yet bringing to journalism.

LULU: That episode would then go on to do this very meta thing of explaining how the words that were being spoken right then, were ...

JONAH LEHRER: Just waves of vibrating air.

LULU: Traveling across space and time into my eardrums.

JONAH LEHRER: Which vibrates a few very small bones. And the little bones transmit the vibration into this salty sea where the hairs are. And the hair cells are literally bent by a wave. They bend like trees in a breeze. And when these hair cells bend, charged molecules flood inwards and activate the cell.

LULU: And it was like I felt it. This stranger's voice had just made contact, literal contact with me. And in that moment I knew that was my path. I wanted to get into that world and use that medium to do that thing.

LULU: 20 years later, I still feel so lucky to be part of this show where every week—gasps!—we send out sounds.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alexander Gamme: Yeah! Yeah!]

LULU: And voices.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Here we go! I feel like this is gonna be strange.]

LULU: And experiences.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Oh, that smells pretty bad!]

LULU: And emotion.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, girl: I dream about monsters every night.]

LULU: That, you know ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: I'm having kind of an emotional reaction to that.]

LULU: ... actually touch you. And look, I think in a moment right now when so many of us feel divided across space, across geography, across ideology, I think sound's potential to sneak in and  connect, I think it really matters. But the truth is—and the reason I am here yammering about all of this is that it's a really dire time in public media right now. And to be able to keep bringing you stories like this that are packed lovingly with sounds—sounds that we hope can help you not just understand a story but feel it, we really need your support.

LULU: We've run the numbers and found that less than two percent of you support Radiolab, and if we could get that number up just a hair, just a little bit, it would make a huge difference. The best way to do that is to join our membership program, The Lab, where you commit to tossing in just a few bucks a month. It is super easy to sign up. To check that out, you just go to

LULU: And to entice you, we just made a brand new t-shirt that every single new member will get this month. And it has a great design. It has a reference to the episode you're about to hear, so more on that in a little bit. And if you join, you also get all kinds of other perks: special event invitations, extra interviews you can listen to, but really it is just about supporting the show, keeping us going. So again, if you want to check out what the t-shirt looks like, see how easy it is to join, a few bucks, like a coffee a month, you can just go to and pick the amount that's right for you.

LULU: All right, thank you for listening to all that. On with today's episode, which is actually that very episode that I heard 20 years ago. I hope you enjoy!


DIANA DEUTSCH: I'll continue. We're here to report the first large scale study ...

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, that's better.

DIANA DEUTSCH: ... comparing the prevalence of absolute pitch into normal populations by means of ...

JAD: This is professor Diana Deutsch.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Diana Deutsch.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, yeah. I'm going to turn down my headphone level.

DIANA DEUTSCH: And I'm a professor of psychology at the University of California—San Diego.

JAD: Can you still hear me, Diana?


JAD: Diana studies sound, how humans perceive sound. She's a scientist, she has a lab, but every so often she will also release CDs.


JAD: These CDs of audio demonstrations that she uses in her research. And that's why we called. Because it was in the production of her second CD that she stumbled onto the weirdest phenomenon.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, I'll tell you what happened is that when you do post-production, as you know, of—of speech, you loop things.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Loop things.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Loop things. So that you can zero in on Ps—puh, puh—that sound too loud, you'll need to unpop. Or Ss that sound too sharp and so on. So you put things on loops in order to fine tune the way the speech sounds. So I had this particular phrase on loop and forgot about it.

JAD: What phrase was this?
DIANA DEUTSCH: It's a phrase that occurs at the beginning of the CD in which I say, "The sounds as they appear to you ..."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: ... are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.]

DIANA DEUTSCH: ... as to seem quite impossible." Now I had "Sometimes behave so strangely" looped.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

DIANA DEUTSCH: Just those few words.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

DIANA DEUTSCH: And forgot about it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

JAD: So here's what happened: Diana leaves her studio, she closes the door, goes into the kitchen to make some tea. All the while, this loop is whirring away in the background. As she's sipping her tea she thinks, "Is someone singing? Who's singing?"

DIANA DEUTSCH: I heard what sounded like song in the background. 

JAD: She realized, wait a second, that's not singing, that's me talking.

DIANA DEUTSCH: That very phrase.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

DIANA DEUTSCH: But at this point it appeared to be sung, rather than spoken.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

DIANA DEUTSCH: This is [plays melody on a keyboard]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: Sometimes behave so strangely ...]


JAD: It's ...

DIANA DEUTSCH: Yeah. You still hear the words but they're sung words rather than spoken words.

JAD: It's weird. Like, it just switches at a certain point, three or four repetitions in.


JAD: It's going, it's going and then—pow!—it becomes music. And then now none of us can get it out of our head. Like, the whole office is like [sings] sometimes behave so strangely. Sometimes behave so strangely.

DIANA DEUTSCH: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely.

DIANA DEUTSCH: And you know what? If you do this demo and then you go back to the original sentence, it sounds like, you know, speech to begin with, and when you come to that very phrase I seem to be bursting into song.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Diana Deutsch: The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.]

DIANA DEUTSCH: I have to say this can continue for months and months. It's sort of—sort of like your brain gets altered for that particular phrase, and it continues to sound like singing for a very, very long time.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

JAD: All right so here we have just one small indication that music is—well, it behaves very strangely. I mean, think about this, we started with some basic speech, repeated it a few times, somewhere along the way it leapt into song. How did it change like that? And if that's all it takes to turn something into music, then what exactly is music really?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

JAD: This is Radiolab. Today's program is about answering that question—or trying to in any case. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with me ...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ba bum ba ba bum bum bum.

JAD: ... is Robert Krulwich, my partner in crime.

ROBERT: It is a little hard to get out of your head.

JAD: I know.

ROBERT: It is really weird.

JAD: I know, I know.


JAD: Okay, so this hour what are we doing?

ROBERT: We are going to try ...

JAD: And we will probably fail.

ROBERT: Well, yes we will fail, but we will make an earnest effort to try to find the ingredients of music, both its basis in language, its basis in physics, its basis in your brain. We'll look everywhere we can—software—trying to find out what music is made of and why it touches us so intimately.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

JAD: And touches us sometimes not in a good way. If you've ever had this experience of going to a concert, hearing some music and it ever made you upset for some reason, like irrationally upset, almost like you wanted to hurt someone, if that rings a bell there's a segment later in the show you will not want to miss.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes ...]

JAD: This is Radiolab. Stick around.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely!]

Man: I completely messed up. 

Woman: Should we do it one more time?

Man: Wrong note.

JAD: All right. Shall we start?


JAD: Well first, thanks to the Laguardia High School Chorus, and Robert Apostle. They were the voices you just heard.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes they behave so ...]

JAD: We'll hear more of them later.

ROBERT: So let's explore a little bit more closely this connection between language and music.

JAD: Yes.

ROBERT: You think of them as separate. The thing is they're really closely related, says neuroscientist Mark Jude Tramo.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: When we speak we sing. You know how to use the pitch of your voice to convey emotion and meaning, like "I went to the store." Just because I raised the pitch—the note, if you will—you interpret that as an interrogative. A monotonic speech you know, talking at the same rate and the rhythm in the same pitch and loudness, I mean, that is not how humans talk.

JAD: But humans talk in all kinds of different ways, in different languages. Each language has its own musical personality, German is different than French, is different than Swahili. And if you look at those differences closely there are all kinds of things we can learn about music. Take Diana Deutsch.


JAD: She's recently been looking at tone languages. Just published her results, and the results are—startling.

JAD: Diana, before we start, what exactly is a tone language?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Okay. In tone languages, words take on different meanings depending upon the tones in which they are enunciated. For example Mandarin has four tones, and the word "Ma" in Mandarin means mother in the first tone, hemp in the second tone, horse in the third tone and a reproach in the fourth tone.

JAD: Could you say them?

DIANA DEUTSCH: The same—would you like me to?

JAD: Yeah could you—could you demonstrate?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Just—oh, I thought you—I thought you were ...

JAD: Well, you know, I have them on CD, but I'd rather hear you say them.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, okay. So excuse my bad pronunciation but I'll try. Ma means mother, Ma means hemp, Ma means horse and Ma is a reproach.

JAD: Huh. So conceivably, if you screwed up the tones you could call your mom a horse.

DIANA DEUTSCH: [laughs] Yes, indeed. In fact, there are quite a lot of jokes where Westerners who don't speak the tones right say terrible things.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

DIANA DEUTSCH: You have to be very careful.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

JAD: See, this is the basic difference: in English, we don't really worry about pitch, we can say our words up here or down here, or gliss it up, or bend it down. It's all the same. Not so with tone languages. In any case, this is where it gets interesting. One day, Diana is working with some Mandarin speakers and she notices something: there were these words, these words that they would say where they would all hit precisely the same note with their voices, not just close to one another either, exactly, precisely and consistently the same pitch. Even on different days.

DIANA DEUTSCH: In fact, would you like me to play for you one person reciting a list of 12 Mandarin tones on two different days?

JAD: Yeah, definitely.

DIANA DEUTSCH: First you have the first word spoken on day one.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

DIANA DEUTSCH: Followed by the same word spoken on day two.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

DIANA DEUTSCH: Then you have the second word spoken on day one.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

DIANA DEUTSCH: Followed by the same word spoken on day two, and so on. And that way you can see the consistency. It's going to appear as though the words are being repeated immediately, but in fact the repetitions occur on entirely different days.

JAD: So each of those word pairs came out of the mouth of one person separated by, like, 24 hours?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Oh, much more than that. Something like a week.

JAD: Really?

DIANA DEUTSCH: And it was a remarkable consistency.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

JAD: Well, that would be like us saying the word "Mom" always at this note here, "Mom, mom, mom."

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, I concluded that basically this was a form of perfect pitch.

JAD: Huh!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

ROBERT: I—I've never quite understood what perfect pitch is, to be honest.

JAD: You—you don't know what that is?

ROBERT: No. Should I? I mean, I know I should.

JAD: Well, it's—it's ...

ROBERT: Whisper it to me.

JAD: As a musician growing up, perfect pitch is like—it's like the thing. It's the thing you wish you had that none of us have. Basically, it's like having a tuning fork in your brain. Here, I'll give you an analogy.


JAD: Okay, you see this coffee cup I'm holding?


JAD: What color is it?

ROBERT: Brown.

JAD: And you knew that how?

ROBERT: Through my eyes.

JAD: Right. You didn't need me to put this brown coffee cup next to my blue jeans.

ROBERT: No, I didn't.

JAD: In order to see the brown. I mean it's absolute brown.

ROBERT: It's absolute brown.

JAD: Perfect pitch people have that with pitch. They hear a pitch, they know exactly what note it is. The rest of us have to run to the piano.

ROBERT: So if they hear a ding from an elevator, can they name the note?

JAD: Yeah, that's exactly it. Anything with a pitch. Like a horn honk, they can tell you that horn is an F, or those church bells are alternating between B flat and B. And if the faucet were dripping, they could say, "That faucet is dripping and it's D sharp." They don't even have to think about it, they just know.

DIANA DEUTSCH: It used to be that the note names would jump out at me.

JAD: Diana Deutsch actually is one of these lucky people.

DIANA DEUTSCH: To the extent that it would even be a nuisance.

ROBERT: Why—why is that good?

JAD: Well, it's really rare. It only happens, like, once every 10,000 people here in America or Europe.

ROBERT: Yeah, but so does turning your tongue into a U.

JAD: Yeah, hold on, hold on. And of the people who have it ...


JAD: Well, let's see. How should I say this? If you look in your music history textbooks you'll see that every famous composer, like the really big ones ...

DIANA DEUTSCH: Like, you know, Mozart and Bach and Beethoven.

JAD: They all had it.

ROBERT: Oh, really?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Mendelssohn, the list goes on and on.

JAD: So if you have perfect pitch, on some level you are closer to them. You've got the gift. Anyhow. Let's get back to Diana Deutsch.


JAD: Okay, let's talk about your latest experiment, that's the one I'm really interested in. Okay so you compared Chinese kids to American kids to see who has perfect pitch more. So explain how this works. You had a group of Chinese music students, a group of American music students at the Eastman School of Music here in New York, and you play them a bunch of notes, I imagine in a room, and asked them to guess what those notes were?


JAD: Now how did that work exactly?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, the test consisted of piano tones which began on the C below middle C. That's this note. And extended up three octaves all the way up to the—that note.

JAD: That's a big range.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Yeah. 36 notes.

JAD: Can you demonstrate?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Sure. Yes. Here are six tones such as were given in the test.

JAD: So you would've played those notes to both sets of kids and asked them to name the notes without going to the piano. What were the notes, really?

DIANA DEUTSCH: What these notes were, D, E, G sharp, C sharp, D sharp, and G.

JAD: What were the results?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, it turns out the Chinese group far outperformed the Eastman group. Of those students who started musical training at ages four and five, 74 percent of the Chinese group showed perfect pitch, but 14 percent of the US non-tone language speakers.

JAD: Whoa! 74 percent?

DIANA DEUTSCH: The Beijing group was nine times roughly more likely to show perfect pitch than the American, English-speaking American group.

JAD: Jesus, that's a staggering difference.

DIANA DEUTSCH: It's a staggering difference.

JAD: And it's your hunch that the—the difference is because they speak a tone language?

DIANA DEUTSCH: That's my hunch. I mean, it's known that in the first year of life, say from age six months up to, you know, a little past a year, infants learn features of their native language. This is a very, very important stage. Let's suppose that tone and the absolute pitch of tones is a feature which is potentially available to anyone. Babies who are exposed only to an intonation language such as English are not given the opportunity to acquire tones. Then they're going to be at a very real disadvantage when they come later on to learn—to take music lessons.

JAD: So you think that as they're—let me ask this—as they're learning their language, which includes inherently music ...


JAD: ... to some degree, they are essentially learning two languages as they learn one. Is that right?

DIANA DEUTSCH: So imagine if you take the first tone, "Ma." It's a flat tone, it's really sung.

JAD: Yeah.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Compared with English speech, it's really more like song.

JAD: That's—that's always been sort of the stereotype of the Chinese language is it's very sort of sing-songy.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [speaking Mandarin]]

DIANA DEUTSCH: For example, the third tone in Mandarin, "Ma," is sort of like a J-type pattern. The second tone, which is a gentle upward gliss, "Ma," the fourth tone which is a rapid downward gliss, "Ma." I mean, these are all kind of musical relationships.

JAD: Yeah.

DIANA DEUTSCH: Given the evidence on absolute pitch, one could speculate further and say well maybe other features of music are also enhanced for individuals who start off learning tone language.

JAD: So then here's my big question: could this explain the experience that I had—and I think a lot of people have this experience—when they're taking music lessons and playing little piddly pieces like Frere Jacques, and here are these little Chinese girls, right, who are playing Rachmoninov.

DIANA DEUTSCH: [laughs] Yeah. Right.

JAD: You know, they're brilliant. Is this why?

DIANA DEUTSCH: Well, I—I think it's a viable hypothesis, I mean, evidently it could be something else. There could be something else going on.

JAD: Like what?

DIANA DEUTSCH: I mean one could argue that instead it might be genetic and so on, but then ...

JAD: But that's—see, that's such a boring theory, frankly.

DIANA DEUTSCH: It is a boring theory, and furthermore we don't have to assume that knowing what we do about exposure to tone language in very early childhood as a ...

JAD: Ah, it's just not fair!

DIANA DEUTSCH: [laughs] And I think we can look at it another way round. Here we have a faculty that had been thought to be confined to a few rare individuals who are just extraordinarily gifted.

JAD: Right.

DIANA DEUTSCH: That might, in fact, be available to any individual provided they're given the right exposure at a critical period. And that raises the question of what other sorts of abilities could be brought out if we only knew just what to do. There may be much more human potential than we had realized.

JAD: Diana Deutsch is a professor of music psychology at the University of San Diego.

ROBERT: Music psychology?

JAD: Music psychology. And as I mentioned earlier she's also the releaser of two CDs.

ROBERT: She has? I forgot that.

JAD: Yes. Two CDs. One's called Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, and the other one is called Phantom Words and Other Curiosities.

ROBERT: And what would—what would she put on a CD, exactly?

JAD: She puts these little audio pieces that she uses in her research, the stuff I guess that she will play to subjects as she tests them, and she will put them on CDs because they're kind of fun to listen to.

ROBERT: This is like an ear test or ...

JAD: Yeah, sort of. We've actually put a couple on our website.

ROBERT: Well, what do they sound like? Just give us a little sample.

JAD: All right, I'll give you some samples. There is the Chromatic Illusion. [electronic sounds] Kind of has a carnival feel to it. There's also the Cambiata Illusion. [electronic sounds]

ROBERT: Oh, the Cambiata Illusion.

JAD: And of course, the Phantom Word Experiments.

ROBERT: Ah, the Phantom Word Experiments.

JAD: None of those pieces are gonna make any kind of sense unless you visit our website,, where all will be explained.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, choir: [singing] Sometimes behave so strangely ...]

LULU: Lulu here. More Radiolab in a moment. We will hear that phrase: sound is touch at a distance, learn about what that means, learn about how it can be such a powerful sound it will make old French ladies throw things. But first, I wanted to just say that that song—da da da da da da da—is still stuck in my head 20 years later. It has been one of the hookiest earworms I've ever encountered in my life—da da da da da da da. And I have finally used my powers as host to get it on a t-shirt. That's right, we just made a brand new t-shirt that says "Sometimes behave so strangely." I think that phrase is kind of a motto for what we're doing here. It's the magic of sound, the power of sound.

LULU: And, you know, if you wear it it might be talking about how sound works or it might be talking about the person inside the shirt who sometimes behaves so strangely. Anyway, it's really cool. Comes in four different colors. I'm so excited about it. And it can be yours if you join The Lab this month and support us. So this is your moment. Get a great shirt, support our little operation here of sonic investigation and tomfoolery. It would mean so much. The way you can do that, you can check out the shirt and consider joining, you just go to Join. Join the party thing. More Radiolab in a moment.

JAD: This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Our program today is about music, what it is, how it works.

ROBERT: And what we want to do next is we want to—we want to stay on the subject, but we're gonna explore this a little more deeply, take a closer look at the connection between language and music, and we're gonna add touch.


ROBERT: And that will take us to the ear ...


ROBERT: ... and then into the brain.


ROBERT: And then to the big question, the really big question: why does music, or how does music become a feeling?

JONAH LEHRER: The feeling.

ROBERT: Why do we get such deep pleasure, or deep pain—we will have pain coming up too ...

JAD: [laughs]

ROBERT: ... all simply because of air pressing against your ear?

JAD: All right. Uh, where first?

ROBERT: All right, well there is a psychology professor I want you to meet, at Stanford, who directs the center for infant studies there. Anne Fernald is her name, and she got it into her head that there is a kind of deep universal music inside language, and she discovered it actually at a hospital. The Max Planck Institute in Munich has an obstetrics unit which is very popular among expectant mothers.

ANNE FERNALD: These mothers came from the wards of this German hospital, and so they were Turkish, they were Greek, they were Sicillian, they were the so-called guest workers in the German society. Course, I didn't understand a word of what they spoke. As soon as they put the baby down and no longer had the physical contact, bodily contact with the child, they started to sing almost. In one language after another ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: speaking Dutch]

ROBERT: Dutch.

ANNE FERNALD: I heard these—I heard them use these melodies ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: speaking Russian]

ROBERT: Russian.

ANNE FERNALD: To reach—to reach the child, to remain in touch with the baby.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: speaking Yiddish]

ROBERT: Yiddish.

ANNE FERNALD: So the next day I brought my tape recorder.

ROBERT: Anne Fernald took her tape recorder from that hospital and traveled all over the world recording parents as they talked to their very little babies. And it didn't matter whether the parents spoke a romance language or a tone language, everywhere she went, below the words she heard consistently the same melodies. For example ...

ANNE FERNALD: I'll start with approval.

ROBERT: When a parent wanted to praise a child ...

ANNE FERNALD: We would ask the parents to show the baby they were happy ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Good boy, now you got it.]

ANNE FERNALD: ... just using their voice. Show him you're happy with that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: speaking Hindi]

ROBERT: Hindi.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: speaking Portuguese]

ROBERT: Portuguese.

ANNE FERNALD: And what these things had in common was that the melody was a kind of a—of a rise-fall.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Good girl. Good girl. You got it. Yeah. Good girl, sweetie.]

ROBERT: So it doesn't matter what words the parents are saying, it's always really about this melody.


JAD: And why that particular melody?

ROBERT: All she knows is it works.

ANNE FERNALD: There's something about this melody that—that keeps the child doing something.

ROBERT: There are, she says, other categories she discovered.

ANNE FERNALD: Now with a prohibition in contrast, your goal is to stop a child from doing something.

ROBERT: The category that says, "Stop!"

ANNE FERNALD: Quite a different melody. It's short, it's sharp. In musical terms it's staccato.

ROBERT: There is the category of "Look, pay attention to that."

ANNE FERNALD: Well, there's frequently used rising pitch. They frequently use higher pitch.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parental Voice: Norah, look. Look, sweetie. A unicorn. A unicorn.]

ROBERT: So far, Anne Fernald has found four universal melodies that praise, that stop, that call attention, and of course the melody that comforts. And while this may seem obvious to you, if you think about it, this is music that is understood by infants who are just new in the world, but we all know what it means. We all know these songs.

ANNE FERNALD: We—we're used to thinking of sounds as being about something, speech is always about something, but it feels to me more like touch. Touch isn't about something. If you whack me on the arm in a sudden sharp way I'm going to be startled, or a gentle touch has a different effect. And I think, you know, actually sound is kind of touch at a distance.

ROBERT: That was Anne Fernald, director of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford. And when Anne says ...

ANNE FERNALD: Sound is more like touch.

ROBERT: That turns out to be literally the case. This is something I learned from a friend of mine, Jonah Lehrer.

JONAH LEHRER. Uh, my name's Jonah Lehrer.

ROBERT: Who at this very moment is working on a book.

JONAH LEHRER: An upcoming book on art and science, on the connection between art and science.

LULU: Lulu here real quick. A few years after this aired, serious problems with Jonah Lehrer's journalism would come to light. Everything in this episode has been fact-checked and stands.

ROBERT: And, says Jonah, thinking about sound as a touch ...

ANNE FERNALD: More like touch ...

ROBERT: ... I asked him: how does sound get into or touch your brain?

ROBERT: Take us on that journey.

JONAH LEHRER: It's just waves of vibrating air. It's just your voice ...

ANNE FERNALD: Touch at a distance.

JONAH LEHRER: ... beginning in your voice box, compresses air, and that air travels through space and time into my ear. The little tunnel. Waves of diffuse, vibrating air, focused and channeled into my eardrums, which vibrates a few very small bones. And the little bones transmit the vibration into this salty sea where the hairs are. And the hair cells are fascinating. The hair cells become active when they are literally bent by a wave. They bend like trees in a breeze, and when these hair cells bend, charged molecules flood inwards and activate the cell.

ROBERT: So the sound triggers the bones, the bones disturbs the fluid, the fluid rocks the hairs?


ROBERT: And then the hairs set off essentially electricity?



JONAH LEHRER: That's the language of neurons.

ROBERT: All those changes from waves to bones to electricity, all those things were a trip on their way to being heard. It's only when the electricity finally forms a pattern in your brain, only when it's deep inside, that's when you hear something.

ANNE FERNALD: It feels to me more like touch. Sound is kind of like touch at a—at a distance.

ROBERT: All right. Now that we have gotten a sound, any sound into our heads, let me ask you the next really big question.

JAD: Okay.

ROBERT: Why do some sounds—let's make it music, okay? Why does music make so many of us so often feel so strongly?
JAD: Yeah, like, in terms of what we were just listening to, like, how does all that electricity from the ear going up to the brain in the next millisecond become a feeling?


JAD: Well, let me introduce you to someone.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: Mark Jude Tramo.

JAD: Actually, we heard from him earlier. He's a neuroscientist.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: I'm in the department of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

JAD: And Mark can at least begin to answer this question, this feeling question. He's done something really interesting. He's able to listen to the electricity as it pulls in the ear and shoots up this big fat nerve to the brain.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: It's—it's kind of a popping sound.

JAD: He can actually listen to that nerve, to the electricity.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: It's a little faster than I'm able to do here with my fingers.

ROBERT: Is that—is that the sound?

JAD: That's what it sounds like. So you hear how that's ...

ROBERT: How—wait, wait. How do they get—how do they get the sounds?

JAD: I actually have no idea. [laughs] I guess they sort of tap into the nerve.

ROBERT: This is the sound of sound entering a brain.

JAD: Yes, this is the sound of sound entering the brain as electricity in little pulses. And as you can hear electricity has a meter. What Mark has discovered is that when the electricity entering your brain is even and regular ...

ROBERT: Which is—is this regular?

JAD: This is regular.

ROBERT: Yeah, sort of—well, just wait. Yeah that's regular.

JAD: Right. When the meter of the electricity is regular and rhythmic, it will arrive in our mind and be heard by us as a sound that we generally like. Like this.


JAD: Nice sound.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: That in music is known as a perfect fifth.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: The inputs coming from a perfect fifth is very, very regular.

JAD: Like a metronome. However—and here's where it gets interesting—when the meter going from the ear to the brain is irregular, jagged, arrhythmic, unpredictable, strange ...

ROBERT: Wait, let me—let me hear. This is—this is jagged?

JAD: This is it right here. This is jagged.

ROBERT: Wait. Shhh! Oh. Yeah, it is jagged.

JAD: Yeah, and what Mark has discovered is that when electrical impulses like that travel from the ear to the brain they will become heard by us, by our mind, as a sound that we generally don't like.

[dissonant cello]

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: Like that.

ROBERT: Don't care for that one.

JAD: That's a minor second.

MARK JUDE TRAMO: The inputs coming from a minor second is very, very chaotic.

ROBERT: Okay, so let me just sum up here what I think you're saying. If a sound entering my brain is disorderly and unexpected ...

JAD: Electrically speaking.

ROBERT: Electrically speaking. Then that would make me feel uncomfortable.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: And if it comes in in a familiar and orderly way, that will make me feel comfortable.

JAD: There does seem to be a relationship between the kind of electricity a sound produces and how we feel about that sound.

ROBERT: Do they have, like, fancy names for this?
JAD: Well that's a minor second, that thing you just heard.

ROBERT: But do the scientists have names for pleasant and unpleasant?

JAD: "Consonant" is pleasant, "dissonant" is unpleasant. That's not a science name, that's a music name.

ROBERT: Oh, okay.

JAD: And these are fixed positions in your ear.

ROBERT: Well, maybe fixed for scientists but, you know, maybe, let me just propose this to you, that what people find pleasing and what people find painful is malleable. I'll tell you why. I'm gonna tell you a story now, a true story. It involves a musician.

JONAH LEHRER: Igor Stravinsky, who is now considered to be one of the great composers of the 20th century, if not the most important composer of the 20th century.

ROBERT: That's Jonah Lehrer again, and Jonah tells the story of two concerts, one year apart, in the same city, the exact same piece of music, the audience that heard it first and the audience that heard it second heard totally different things.

ROBERT: So let's begin. First, Jonah, how does this—just set the scene.

JONAH LEHRER: This is May, 1913.

ROBERT: It's a spring night?

JONAH LEHRER: It's a—it's a balmy summer night. Black tie costumes, the women have their fedoras.

ROBERT: This was evening clothes.

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah, well this was the Russian Ballet, this was high art.

ROBERT: And the program said this was a concert about springtime, but as they settled into their seats it turns out that what Stravinsky had in mind was not spring like honeybees. No, the spring Stravinsky had in mind was about change, about radical change, ritual murder.

JONAH LEHRER: Literally, that's what the story of the play is, it's—it's a pagan ritual where at the end the virgin gets massacred.

ROBERT: Oh, dear!

JONAH LEHRER: But the music itself is fascinating. The beginning is this very charming bassoon. It's a classic Lithuanian folk tune, and it does sound like the Earth is warming. And that lasts for about a minute, and then we get some tooting of flutes. And it's lovely. It's getting a little more disturbing. And then about three minutes into it everything changes. There's—there's just an earthquake. Stravinsky plays this chord. There's a great story that when Diaghilev, who was the head of the Ballet Russes, first heard this chord and Stravinsky was playing it on the piano for him, he asked Stravinsky how long will it go on like that. And Stravinsky looked at him and said, "To the end, my dear." And—and it literally does. That chord structures the music. It's one of the most difficult sounds you've ever heard. It is—it is just the stereotype of dissonance. It is—it hurts you.

ROBERT: Huh. Well, what happened?

JONAH LEHRER: Well, after about three minutes they rioted.

ROBERT: They what?

JONAH LEHRER: They rioted.

ROBERT: Meaning what, they screamed, or threw ...

JONAH LEHRER: They screamed. There was blood. Old ladies were hitting each other with canes.

ROBERT: Why were old ladies—old ladies should have gone and hit Stravinsky with a cane.

JONAH LEHRER: Well once they started screaming Stravinsky ran backstage, and by some accounts was crying. Nijinsky was off on the side of the stage screaming to his dancers to keep the beat.


JONAH LEHRER: Quite the fiasco. And the question is why.

ROBERT: This is the feeling question.

JAD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: Why so much feeling about a piece of music? That's ...

JAD: Why did they riot?

ROBERT: You would think that they rioted because they were hot, because they didn't like those sounds, because they didn't—because they thought those dancers were making strange and odd gestures.

JAD: Well, Jonah offers a different theory. Well, let me put it this way, this riot has been talked about and written about for forever, but to the best of our knowledge no one has ever tried to explain what has happened that night through the lens of brain chemistry.

ROBERT: Brain chemistry.

JAD: Yeah, what music can do to a brain.

JONAH LEHRER: You know, if you try to imagine yourself where all you've heard is Wagner and the great romanticism of 19th-century music, and then all of a sudden you get this, I mean,  these—these are noises you've never heard before.

JAD: You know, it's all very new, but scientists are beginning to figure out what happens in our brain when we hear noises we've never heard before—especially dissonant noises.

YON FISHMAN: We find that chords, musical chords that are typically judged to be dissonant, elicit these wild fluctuations in brain activity.

JAD: This is Yon Fishman. He is a neuroscientist, and he studies those wild fluctuations in the brain.

YON FISHMAN: In an area of the brain called the auditory cortex.

JAD: Let's zoom into the auditory cortex for a moment, because this is basically hearing central. And when you're listening to music, there are all kinds of neurons doing all kinds of things. One gang in particular ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: Hey! Psst, over here!]

JAD: ... that Yon is interested in ...

YON FISHMAN: That's right.

JAD: ... a gang that he suspects gets very agitated when it hears sounds like these, these neurons might be a new noise department. Because he thinks their job is to take every new strange, unordered, unpredictable noise that comes into the brain and figure it out. Find the pattern.

JONAH LEHRER: There are groups of neurons whose sole job it is ...

JAD: This is how Jonah puts it.

JONAH LEHRER: ... to turn that dissonant note, dissect it, take it apart, and try to understand it.

YON FISHMAN: We are pattern searching animals.

JAD: And this is how Yon Fishman puts it.

YON FISHMAN: And so at the level of the auditory cortex, the brain has this daunting task of having to be able to disentangle this complex mixture of sounds.

JAD: Most of the time, those neurons in the auditory cortex ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: I got it!]

JAD: ... succeed ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: Now give it to me, give it to me!]

JAD: ... in finding the pattern.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: I think I can get it. I think it's going up, I'm not sure. Wait ...]

JAD: But every so often ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: Where's the pattern?]

JAD: ... and maybe this was the case that night ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: This is making me sick.]

JAD: ... they fail. Okay, so Robert, imagine inside the brains, inside the heads of the people in the audience listening to the Rite of Spring that night, were all of these neurons ...

ROBERT: Yeah, I can hear them.

JAD: ... trying to make sense of the new sounds and failing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: This is unlike anything I was ever prepared for ever.]

JAD: Not just failing once or twice but over and over and over and over.

ROBERT: Yeah, because the Rite of Spring keeps being dissonant all the way through, so they can never get any rest.

JAD: And when those neurons fail repeatedly there are consequences.

ROBERT: Chemical consequences.

JONAH LEHRER: What happens is our neurons squirt out a bit of dopamine.

ROBERT: And what does the dopamine do?

JONAH LEHRER: Well, dopamine makes us feel.

JAD: A little dopamine makes you feel happy. That's why sex and drugs make you feel euphoric.

JONAH LEHRER: But a little too much and that euphoria turns into literally schizophrenia.

ROBERT: Really?

JONAH LEHRER: Yes. I don't want to oversimplify schizophrenia in any way shape or form, but some of our most effective treatments for schizophrenia work by suppressing dopamine release in the brain.

ROBERT: So there's some kind of relationship. Too much dopamine has been shown clinically to make people feel crazy.


JAD: Maybe that's what happened that night on May 29, 1913.

ROBERT: Music erupted, neurons ...

JAD: Revolted.

ROBERT: Right. Dopamine flooded through the—through their brains.

JAD: And people went mad.

ROBERT: Literally mad!

ROBERT: Let's go to the second night. This piece comes back to Paris, does it not?


ROBERT: How much later after the riot?

JONAH LEHRER: It's from May to March.

ROBERT: Huh. So it's almost a year later.

JONAH LEHRER: Yes. And this time it doesn't come with a ballet. This time it's just being performed as a work of music.

ROBERT: So do—does anyone buy tickets?

JONAH LEHRER: Oh yeah, it's—it's gonna sell out. It did cause a few nights of violent riots.

ROBERT: Can you set up the situation now, the audience—is it a different audience?

JONAH LEHRER: I actually don't know if the audience is different.

ROBERT: But we can at least say that the audience is coming to it with a different set of information.

JONAH LEHRER: Exactly. They—they've been warned. So for the first time they can actually sit back and really pay attention to the notes. By being willing to listen, they could hear the orders and patterns that Stravinsky had hidden in this work. They were able to hear the music and find the orders hidden underneath this noise.

ROBERT: Was there a riot this time, the second round?

JONAH LEHRER: Oh, no, quite the opposite. Stravinsky was a hero. They carried him out on their shoulders.

ROBERT: Really? Literally, he was—he was ...

JONAH LEHRER: Literally, he was carried on their shoulders, and—and the press was glowing.

ROBERT: In one year?

JONAH LEHRER: In one year.

JAD: In just one year, Stravinsky had gone from villainous monster to hipster icon. To the extent that police had to escort him from the concert hall to keep him safe from adoring fans. And that was just the beginning.

JONAH LEHRER: The—the third story, if you wanted to tell a third story, would be it became children's music. It became Disney music in 1940.

JAD: 27 years after Stravinsky had caused a violent, bloody riot, he was negotiating with Mickey Mouse over the rights to use his music in Fantasia.

ROBERT: Which Fantasia? Is it starring a hippopotamus in a little tutu? That's the one?

JAD: No is it the—is it the mushroom story?

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah, I think it's the mushrooms, isn't it?

ROBERT: The mushrooms.

JAD: Actually we later looked it up, and it was the part with the dinosaurs.

ROBERT: So how does this happen? How do you go so quickly from being the most outrageous thing that literally maddens people, to a triumph, to kids music? [laughs]

JONAH LEHRER: Yes. I mean the Rite of Spring is perfect evidence of the brain's astonishing plasticity.

JAD: See, this is the really cool part of it for me.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm?

JAD: If you remember just one bit of science from this whole thing, remember this: those neurons we met earlier?

ROBERT: The ones with the little voices? I liked them. Yes.

JAD: Yes. It turns out those neurons learn.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: Oh I see.]

JAD: And they learn fast.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: I am so smart.]

JAD: Because they're actually part of a larger network of brain cells with a very technical name ...

YON FISHMAN: Called the corticofugal network.

JAD: And what this network does is it's always sort of monitoring, listening to the sounds that are coming into the brain and tuning those neurons to better hear those sounds.

ROBERT: Like trying to get the station on the radio, just getting it just right.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, neuron: Woo. Wow!]

YON FISHMAN: So our neurons literally adjust. Literally. We're talking the biochemical engineering sense, so if on that first night if you just hear The Rite as pure noise all the way through from beginning to end, if you're listening, if you're letting your corticofugal network do its job, it can actually resculpt your brain and let you hear the patterns better as the symphony evolves.

ROBERT: Is it fair to say that this is a sort of tug of war? That an artist comes, creates something that is new and unpredictable and strange and maybe noise-ish at first hearing, and the artist is thrilled to be new in that way and then the brain ruins it all, slowly but surely, by making it familiar?

YON FISHMAN: Well the brain abhors the new. The brain constantly wants to assimilate every experience we've ever had into every other experience.


YON FISHMAN: And I think Stravinsky realized it was the purpose of the artist to challenge the brain, to break the brain out of its conservative cycle.

ROBERT: The astonishing thing to me is here you have an artist like Igor Stravinsky who comes to town intentionally trying to get people to sit in their seats and really listen to music, and the strategy he chooses is instead of pleasing them he wants to put them in a little bit of discomfort or real pain even.

JAD: Right.

ROBERT: And indeed, they not only listen, they riot. But within a year—and this is the sad part to me—within a year it's easier to hear, suddenly it's pleasant, suddenly they like it, and suddenly Igor Stravinsky is robbed of his newness.

JAD: Why is that sad for you?

ROBERT: Well, because it kind of—I don't know. I never thought of the brain as the enemy of the artist before.

JAD: Yeah, yeah. But I can give you a different interpretation on this. I mean, here comes a guy that offers up the most dissonant, stabbing, percussive, painful music that anyone had heard to that point, and we learn to love it.

ROBERT: Well, because ...

JAD: Doesn't that make you sort of feel, like, pride?

ROBERT: No, I—no.

JAD: I mean, like, our brains can decode anything.

ROBERT: We learn to love it only because it's well made.

JAD: Yeah, but ...

ROBERT: If it was just random car honks, I don't think you could really appreciate that.

JAD: I—I disagree.

ROBERT: Oh, you think it would be like just [squeak squeak honk]?

JAD: Have you—have you heard the music that was written after Stravinsky? It's even worse than what you just did.

ROBERT: Yeah, but my brain has never accommodated that music.

JAD: But some people love that stuff. And my only point is that if there—if there are these, like, fixed poles in our ear between consonance and dissonance, which is how we started this whole thing, and now we end up learning that our brains can override that to such an astonishing degree, well then culture wins. Culture beats biology.

ROBERT: That's true. But to me it's sad.

JAD: It's sad for the artist, it's not sad for us.

ROBERT: It's sort of like the artist and the brains are in a kind of eternal struggle.

LULU: That'll do it for today. Additional production by Sarah Qari, and we will throw some new sounds at you next week.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Sven calling from Storrs, Connecticut. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]




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