Here’s another shocker for you: the written language was developed only to make the spoken language permanent.
Think about it. Do babies learn to speak first, or to read first?
In fact, the written word has no meaning until it has been translated into the spoken word it represents. This is why it takes the average reader 38 percent longer to understand the written word than to understand the same word when spoken.
Stay with me. An understanding of this stuff will make your ads musical, memorable, and persuasive even when they’re being read silently off a computer screen or from the printed page.
The English language is composed of only 43 sounds.*
These sounds are called phonemes and they are the parts and pieces of words. Be careful not to think of them as the letters of the alphabet. In fact, not all letters of the alphabet have their own phoneme. The letter “c” usually indicates the “k” sound, but we give it the “s” sound when followed by an “i”. Likewise, the phoneme we hear as “sh” can be heard in the word fish, but we also hear it in fictitious, where it is created by a “t” followed by an “i.”
Don’t focus on the spelling of the word in question; it is the sound of the word we’re after.
Have you ever been lying in bed, reading a book, when it occurred to you that you’ve been scanning this same paragraph over and over and you still have no idea what it says? This is because the part of your brain connected to your eyes is still taking in the visual symbols we all the written word, but you are no longer hearing those words in your mind.
Phonemes are vitally important to ad writers because they carry unconscious, symbolic meanings of their own. This is one of those things you’ve always known but never thought about: the definition of a word is colored by its sound.
And its sound is dictated by the phonemes that comprise it.
This is why a great ad writer would ever call a diamond “small.” Because small is dull. Small, at best, would glow, like a pearl.
Diamonds fling jagged shards of light.
This is why you should write, “tiny little diamonds twinkling, glitt’ring and sparkling in the sun.” The sharp-edged “t” and “k” sounds are what we’re after.
In the musical fabric of language, every sound is vitally important. What distinguishes large and small from big and little is the difference in their musics. Phonemes within a language are like the instruments in an orchestra. Just as the drums make a different kind of music than do the strings, and the strings make a different kind music than do the woodwinds, so also do the stops – like p,b,t,d,k, and g – make a different music than do the fricatives, the sounds that hiss or hush or buzz – like f, v, s, z, sh, th. And the fricatives make a different music than the nasal velars, like the “ng” sound in song, tongue, string and bring. (Don’t read those lists as letters of the alphabet; make the sounds the letters represent.)
Phonemes are either obstruent or sonorant.
Obstruents are perceived as harder and more masculine; sonorants as softer and more feminine. Big and little are obstruent, perfect for diamonds that fling jagged shards of light. Large and small are sonorant, just right for clothing made of soft fabric.
Now are you ready for the really trippy part? Deborah Ross, Jonathan Choi, and Dale Purves at Duke University recently discovered that the musical scale of every culture is determined by the harmonic frequencies of the vowels they speak.
Words, then, are literally music.
Ed Yong, writing for National Geographic, says, “Have you ever looked at a piano keyboard and wondered why the notes of an octave were divided up into seven white keys and five black ones? After all, the sounds that lie between one C and another form a continuous range of frequencies. And yet, throughout history and across different cultures, we have consistently divided them into sets of twelve semi-tones. Now, Deborah Ross and colleagues from Duke University have found the answer. These musical intervals actually reflect the sounds of our own speech, and are hidden in the vowels we use. Musical scales just sound right because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are primed to detect.”
This is a paragraph from the actual study at Duke:
“Expressed as ratios, the frequency relationships of the first two formants in vowel phones represent all 12 intervals of the chromatic scale. Were the formants to fall outside the ranges found in the human voice, their relationships would generate either a less complete or a more dilute representation of these specific intervals. These results imply that human preference for the intervals of the chromatic scale arises from our experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”
Bottom line: You will no longer need a music bed beneath your TV and radio ads when you’ve learned to craft musical combinations of words.
In addition: music and musical words are processed in the unsuspecting right hemisphere of the brain, unlike non-musical words, which are processed in the suspicious, doubt-filled left.
Think of the implications for persuasion.
Indy beagle will give you the final ingredient for making words musical in the rabbit hole.
Meet me there?
Roy H. Williams
* 44 if you count the unvoiced “th” in with as a different sound than the voiced “th” in the.