How quick and subtle we are

When I worked as a speech-language therapist many years ago, I led parent workshops to help them understand and promote healthy language development. One facet of this was to present how complicated articulation was and how normal development of articulation varied a great deal. For example, many children say “tow” for “cow” early on in their speech development and self –correct (grow out of it) after some months. I always emphasized how complicated and how skilled a linguistic performance was. A common issue was how chronic ear infections affected development; speech is not easy to understand with the distortions resulting from middle ear congestion and from 6 months to 18 months, the brain is learning to process the auditory stream in a very specific manner in order to understand speech with facility. Likewise, speaking is a highly skilled behavior. A simple sentence, such as, “I want to go outside,” takes less than a second to utter and involves the articulation of around 14 phonemes, each requiring its own positioning of the vocal tract, i.e., lips, tongue, pharynx and larynx. Precise movements made in milliseconds with finely modulated breath control. Even our laughing is different from chimps’ laughing because of our breath control. I found it amazing that some 2 year olds, mostly girls, spoke with great clarity and was not amazed that some 4 year olds, mostly boys, still spoke with an errant phonemic pattern. speechsignal So speech is quick and subtle—I haven’t even broached topics of individual voice and interpersonal effectiveness and persuasion. (Remember Walter Cronkite saying, “And that’s the way it is” and we knew it was). And while we are discussing quick and subtle, let’s consider musical performance. I started reading Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, a comprehensive review of research on the topic. I can understand the linguistics and brain well enough but I struggle with some of the musical concepts. Dr. Patel discusses some research made possible by computer technology over the past decade or so into the timing of piano playing. Wow! Looking at one classical piano sonata, a researcher measured the length of all the eighth notes. Theoretically these are all of the same length and when computer reads a score, all the notes are the same, thus the flat, machinelike quality of some computer music. When a good pianist plays the score, however, the notes vary in length, with the average eighth note lasting 652 milliseconds with some lasting only 400 msecs and others going over 800 msecs. This variation is intentional as it results from the human player’s interpretation of the piece—these tiny variations convey the pianist’s musicality and expressiveness.  It is his  or her art. music-notes Other researchers manipulated musical pieces to approximate various degrees between very standardized computer plays to natural human performance. People were able to detect very subtle differences and always preferred the one closer to the natural performance. Yes, computers are fast and helpful; human art is quick and delightful. John Henry wins this one. Travel on.

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