Word Parts And The Music Of Vowels


(By Roy Williams) According to cognitive neuroscientists, the most important gift of the human race is our ability to attach complex meanings to sounds. 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?

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.

Phonemes are astoundingly important to radio ad writers.

The English language is composed of only 43 sounds. (Forty-four if you count the unvoiced “th” in with as a different sound than the voiced “th” in the.) These sounds are called phonemes, the building blocks of language. 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. Consider the letter “c” — it can have the “k” sound, or the “s” sound if followed by an “i.” Likewise, the phoneme we associate with “sh” can be heard in the word fish, but it can also be heard in fictitious, where it is represented by a “t” followed by an “i.”

So ignore 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 of the written word, but you are no longer hearing the words in your mind.

Phonemes are vitally important to radio writers because phonemes carry unconscious, symbolic meanings of their own. This is why the definition of a word is always colored by the sound of that word and the sound of the phonemes that comprise it.

This is why you should never call diamonds “small.” Because small is dull. Small, at best, would glow, like a pearl. But diamonds fling jagged shards of light. This is why you should write, “tiny little diamonds twinkling, glitt’ring, and sparkling in the sun.” It is the sharp-edged “t” and “k” sounds that 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. Individual sounds within a language are like the individual instruments in an orchestra. Just as the strings make a different kind of music than do the brasses, and the brasses make a different kind of music than do the drums, so also do the vowels in a language make a different music than do the fricatives, the sounds that hiss or hush or buzz — like f, v, s, z, sh, th. (Don’t read those as letters of the alphabet, but make the sounds the letters represent.)

The fricatives make different music than do the stops, like p, b, t, d, k, and g.

The stops make a different music than do the nasal velars like the “ng” sound in song, tongue, string, and bring.

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. Large and small are sonorant, perfect 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 on earth 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 this set 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 experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”

Bottom line: You won’t need to put a music bed beneath your ads when you’ve learned to craft musical combinations of words

Are you up for it?

Roy H. Williams is president of Wizard of Ads Inc.


  1. Excellent presentation of incredibly useful materials, Roy.
    It shore do beat the pants off: “C’mon down and make yer bes’ deal!”
    The drawback is in how such information also makes the livestock nervous.


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