I’ve become so addicted to podcasts that I feel antsy if I’m not caught up with my favorite ones. Currently, though, I have the opposite problem: WNYC’s Radio Lab, cohosted and coproduced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, only has five episodes a year. It takes me a few short walks to listen to five fascinating hours, and then I’m bereft till 2008.
There are so many things I love about the program. The hosts have definitively mastered the art of sounding intimate and spontaneous (and smart and funny), although I suspect a great deal of effort has gone into an effortless-seeming result.
The last episode I heard was “Musical Language,” which first aired in November 2006. Like all the episodes, the sound artistry is wonderful, with words frequently manipulated to illustrate their meaning through sound effects. For instance, when a guest on this program refers to “looping” snippets of sound, they loop her reference, repeating a few words again and again, thus demonstrating exactly what a sound loop is (and skipping a lot of boring exposition).
Every segment of this show is quite remarkable. For example, did you know that people who are native speakers of tonal languages (like Chinese, where inflection radically changes meaning, not just nuance—”ma” in one tone means mother, and in another tone means horse) are much more likely to have the knack of perfect pitch, the ability to precisely identify the notes hit by voices, instruments, even car horns? When researchers tested similar cohorts of American and Chinese music students, for instance, only 14 percent of the former had perfect pitch, as compared to 74 percent of the latter. (Overall perfect pitch occurs in only 1 out of 10,000 Europeans and Americans, speakers of non-tonal languages, but Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et al had it.)
Abumrad and Krulwich tell this segment with a great deal of lively and informative detail, but the most delightful thing to me is the way they end it, with the remarkable Diana Deutsch asking “What other sorts of abilities could be brought out if we only just knew what to do? There may be much more human potential than we had realized.”
What sticks with me the most is the segment about cross-cultural similarities in the music of speech parents use to talk to their infants, as researched by Anne Fernald, head of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford. She identified four universal underlying melodies occurring in many languages: approval/happiness, stop/disapproval, look/pay attention, and comfort. As Robert Krulwich said, “We all know these songs,” from our first breaths.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about innate abilities, such as the question of an innate moral grammar. Isn’t it delicious to think we have an innate musical grammar? “Sound,” says Anne Fernald, “is kind of like touch at a distance.”