Thoughts on the Music of English

I’ve been listening to one of my favorite American podcasts. It’s called “Twenty Thousand Hertz.” The title comes from the fact that human beings are born with the ability to hear up to 20,000 Hz (hertz being the unit of measurement for sound). As a former musician who’s always fascinated by sound, I love this podcast because it explores sound “design” –– sounds we take for granted, like notification sounds on the laptop or smartphone, the emergency warning system, music for slot machines, gaming, news shows. But I was really excited to listen to an episode devoted to the Music in Speech.

Music is the universal language. I often post music and musical videos and dance and music videos on my Facebook FP. There’s virtually no culture in the world that doesn’t include music. By capturing the music of a language, we can help increase intelligibility. In this episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz, you get to hear words converted to music pure and simple, electronically, and by a drummer who plays along with the speech of certain actors, converting the words into pure rhythm and dynamics (gradations of loud and soft).

There’s an interview with Dr. Ani Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University, who makes a very interesting observation at the end. He reminds us that over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution human beings have become very attuned to the sounds of each others’ voices. We listen for and respond to the emotional signals that pitch, rhythm and dynamics provide for understanding intention. Dr. Patel says that “when we communicate through texts or through email, we’re … cutting off that rich part of how we read each other’s emotions, feelings, intentions, thoughts, mood…”

So true. So true. It’s as if we’re always looking for “shortcuts” to avoid the depth of the English language. That can be particularly difficult for ESL speakers looking to improve language skills. That’s why I keep urging clients to take the time to listen with attention to the pitch, rhythm and dynamics of spoken English in every medium. Close your eyes and feel the sounds of English all around you.

If you aren’t already, listen to some great podcasts like Twenty Thousand Hertz on ITunes. Learn about the sounds that shape us – their history, their evolution and, sometimes, their disappearance. For the episode I’ve referred to in this blog,  go to

And check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel for episodes on pronunciation challenges and my newest video series One-Minute Words

If you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear from you.


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