Setting words to music: An empirical investigation concerning effects of phoneme on the experience of interval size

Frank A. Russo, William Thompson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionResearchpeer-review


Recent research in our lab has shown that experience of interval size is influenced by several
variables not directly related to pitch distance. These variables include spectral centroid (Russo &
Thompson, 2005), pitch register and pitch direction (Russo & Thompson, in press), and in the case
of vocal music, facial expression (Thompson, Graham, & Russo, 2005; also see talk in “Media”
Symposium, ICMPC9). The influence of spectral centroid is somewhat surprising because its
perception is generally considered to be a component of timbre (i.e., brightness), and orthogonal
to pitch perception.
Because phonemes vary with regard to spectral centroid, it is possible that the experience of pitch
relations in sung music may be influenced by phoneme sequence. Our focus in this investigation
was limited to the influence of phonemes on the perception of interval size.
Three-tone sequences were synthesized so as to vary precisely with regard to phoneme and pitch
content. The sequence of phonemes yielded spectral centroid patterns that followed one of three
contours: rise-fall (e.g., /di/-/da/-/di/), fall-rise (e.g., /da/-/di/-/da/), or static (e.g., /da/-/du/-/da/).
The sequence of pitches followed one of two contours: rise-fall (e.g., C-G- C) or fall-rise (e.g.,
G-C-G). Participants understood that all sequences would start and end on the same phoneme
and pitch but that these parameters would vary across sequences. The experimental task was to
assess the extent of pitch change between the middle tone and its flanking neighbor tones in each
Perceived pitch distance varied as a function of centroid and pitch contour, with larger pitch distances associated with sequences possessing congruent contours.
Our findings suggest that word selection in vocal music may influence the experience of interval
size between neighboring tones. This research may provide insight to age-old questions concerning how to best set words to music.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAbstracts - 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. 6th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music
EditorsMario Baroni, Anna Rita Addessi, Roberto Caterina, Marco Costa
PublisherBononia University Press
Number of pages2
ISBN (Electronic)88-7395-155-4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2006
Externally publishedYes


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