Over 130 years ago, Darwin suggested that speech and melody have the same ancestor. Now two academics have returned to the idea and are currently researching the connection between sound and emotion in relation to language. It seems that the tone of someone’s voice can affect our emotions in the same way that other sounds in the natural world can, such as running water or barking dogs. We can feel calm, anxious, excited or happy and can even have our perceptions altered depending on the tones we hear. Read on to explore the connection between sounds and emotions as we think about what this means for language.
The Connection Between Sound and Emotion
There is a strong connection between the sounds we hear and the emotions we feel. Scientists Dr Weiyi Ma and Prof William Thompson have discovered that small changes in sound can affect human emotions as much as the shifts in tone of a person’s voice.
For example, the delicate pitter patter of rain drops or the soft hoot of a distant owl seem to move our emotions, in the same way our feelings can be roused or altered by the way someone speaks to us. Sound is not only a physical occurrence; it also has a strong emotional component.
This interesting website has an audio poll, giving you a variety of sounds and letting you vote for your emotional response to each: http://www.amplifon.co.uk/emotions-of-sound.html. It can be fascinating to discover how much a simple sound can affect how we feel and this website lays the sound bare so we can focus only on our emotions as we listen.
Dr Ma and Prof Thompson claim that this connection between sound and emotion shows that early humans used the sounds of nature to create a ‘musical protolanguage’. This ‘protolanguage’ eventually developed into real words, leaving music as a byproduct of this experiment. This is how we began using sounds to manipulate emotions.
In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin said that language developed from the ‘imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries’. This idea is brought to the forefront of linguistics research by this new study of the relationship between sound and emotion.
Pitch, Volume and Speed of Language
In order to examine the idea of emotional shifts in relation to audio input, Ma and Thompson changed the pitch, volume and speed of 24 separate sounds. They found that sounds what were louder, faster and high pitched made the control audience of 50 students feel excited and anxious.
The scientists then showed the group a range of pictures of people’s faces portraying different emotions. The group judged the emotions on the faces differently depending on the sounds that were played at the same time.
Ma and Thompson concluded that sound and emotion are directly linked and our interpretation of what we see in front of us is strongly affected by what we hear. Their findings are published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
This experiment also suggests that the way we speak, not only the words we use, affects how people judge us. As sounds affect our perceptions in this way, it seems only natural to conclude that speaking in different ways could elicit different responses.
Speaking in a fast, high pitched tone of voice could make people judge us differently from when we speak in a slow, soft tone of voice. It is possible they may judge us to be more aggressive when we use a higher pitched, louder voice and it seems likely such a voice could also make others feel anxious.
Stress-timed and Syllable-timed Languages
Much of the way we sound depends of course on the language we speak. Stress-timed languages (such as English), can sound very different to the ear than a syllable-timed language (such as Spanish), or a tonal language (such as Mandarin Chinese).
Stresses appear evenly spread in stress-timed languages, which are characterised by vowel reduction, where vowels are shortened or weakened. Stress-timed languages are sometimes said to have ‘Morse-code’ rhythm due to the regularity of their stress pattern.
Stresses are more sporadic in syllable-timed languages because instead of using stress patterns to space the words, the language is timed by spacing the syllables and vowel sounds.
Syllable-timed languages are sometimes said to have a ‘machine-gun’ rhythm because each rhythmical unit is of the same duration, sounding like rapid gun fire.
In contrast to both stress-timed language and syllable-timed language, tonal languages use changes in the pitch of the voice to make phonemic distinctions. Tonal languages are very common in Africa and East Asia and it is thought that around 70% of the world’s languages are tonal.
From the research by Ma and Thompson, it would seem that tonal languages would have the strongest effect on our emotions when we hear them, due to their regular changes between high and low tones and strong fluctuations in pitch.
Can the Sound of a Voice Affect your Emotions?
Do you find that the sound of language can affect your emotions?
Do certain languages sound more aggressive, calm or happy to your ear?
Have you used music to deliberately change your emotions? Can you imagine using languages in the same way?
What sounds make you the happiest, the calmest or the most anxious? Let us know in the comments.