Inflection: Color to the Ear

Starry Night.jpg

The human brain can perceive over 7 million colors!

This astounding ability allows us to discern important differences between similarly colored objects; it also allows us to perceive a richer, more interesting world. 

But the visual system isn't the only sensory system that can parse out subtle differences between similar stimuli.  Our auditory system also has this exceptional ability, and it's critical to how we perceive the meaning of spoken words.

What's the difference between You! and You?  Say them out loud.  It's the same word, same vowels, in the same order, yet they mean dramatically different things.  Or how about the semantic difference that surfaces when we emphasize different parts of the same sentence, like:

"I need your report." (indicates who needs the report)

"I NEED your report." (indicates strong necessity)

"I need YOUR report."  (indicates which report is needed)

Ultimately, meaning is conveyed by changes in vocal pitch, tone, inflection, and rhythm. Change tone (or don't) and the entire meaning of the words you say changes.

Researchers and linguists refer to the patterns of changing tune and rhythm as speech prosody, and research published last month in the journal Science documents the existence of specialized brain cells that detect these critical differences. (For an excellent summary of this research, read Science Daily's "How the human brain detects the 'music' of speech")

So the next time you must be understood, whether for a large public address or an intimate conversation, begin by carefully choosing your words, but don't stop there.  Devote equal attention to precisely how you will say them because what message your audience hears comes not just from what you say, but how you say it.

After all, Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night isn't a brilliant painting because of the subject matter, it's brilliant because of the associated colors that give it transcendent meaning.