Musical Language

In a 2007 episode of my favorite radio show, Radiolab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology who studies music. During the episode, entitled "Musical Language," Deutsch recounts a moment when she was editing audio and stumbled upon a spoken phrase that revealed the music inherent to language. She had looped a segment of audio in order to clean it up for a CD she was producing, and that looped phrase began to sound like music.

You can listen to the entire Radiolab segment (and I highly recommend that you do), but I've also isolated the phrase in question so that we might use this to ponder the significance of sonic eloquence. Here is the sentence in question:

Deutsch's phrase, in context
{Download Clip]

Here is Deutsch's musical phrase, "sometimes behaves so strangely":

"Sometimes behaves so strangely"
{Download Clip]

And here is that phrase looped several times:

"Sometimes behaves so strangely" looped.
{Download Clip]

As Abumrad, Krulwich, and Deutsch note, once you hear this phrase a few times (especially in the looped clip), it's nearly impossible not to hear it as music.

Of course, Deutsch is not singing, but her language is exhibiting musical qualities, and this is one example of what I have called sonic eloquence. While Deutsch is may or may not be trying to persuade with this sentence (we learn in the context of the Radiolab segment that the sentence is part of an explanation of sounds that she uses in her research, so it is entirely likely that the sentence is meant to be persuasive), her phrasing here demonstrates sonic eloquence.

This story demonstrates that the looping of audio clips is a useful strategy for tracking sonic eloquence. So, looping could be both a rhetorical strategy and a tool for rhetorical analysis. With repetition, we are able to notice how sound is helping or hindering attempts at persuasion. For instance, here is an audio clip of Johnny Cochran's famous defense of O.J. Simpson:

"The gloves didn't fit. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
[Download Clip]

This clip is included in's audio archive as an example of an enthymeme, and the construction of Cochran's premises and conclusions seem to have been persuasive. Even if the jurors who acquitted Simpson would not attach their own decision to this particular argument, the fact that these two sentences have implanted themselves in the popular imaginary is enough to suggest that they were persuasive. But what is happening sonically in Cochran's argument? Here is the most famous part of this argument isolated:

"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
[Download Clip]

We can already hear both a rhythm and a song emerging here, and this becomes clearer when we loop the clip:

"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" looped.
[Download Clip]

While not all spoken phrases are equally musical, it seems likely that looping most any phrase will remind us of the eloquence of sound, the frequencies that are operating in any attempt to persuade. Isolating and looping certain phrases could help us to track sonic eloquence and to attune us to our own attempts to use sound persuasively.