How Sounds Affect Our Mood

There is nothing more riveting than a scream of terror. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, it has the power to reach into our reptilian brains and trigger an adrenaline rush and a feeling of unshakable unease. Nevertheless, even though a scream is the most basic word in our vocabulary and understood by every mammal on earth, there are screams and there are screams.

Women shriek with fear; men bellow. This isn't to say that men are incapable of screaming, but that the purpose of the female fear response is usually different from that of the male response. The primary intention of the female scream is to alert others of potential danger and to elicit the help of nearby people. One problem with making such a loud noise is that it might alert predators that can take advantage of the individual's distress as well as potential rescuers. A scream must, therefore, alert only those close enough to help before quickly dissipating into the air. Because high-frequency sounds are absorbed by the air far more readily than low-frequency sounds, the high-pitched female scream is perfect for summoning help without signaling other predators. We find similar behavior in canines. When a dog defends its territory, its bark is low and threatening, but if it becomes injured and cannot stand its ground, it changes its tune to a high-pitched yelp. In contrast to the female, when a man expresses fear, it's usually with a low-pitched terror-bellow designed to intimidate the source of the danger and discourage other predators. The deeper the tone, the more effective the threat since such resonance can only be effected by a large chest cavity. English words convey these masculine and feminine qualities by their use of low or high frequency letters; male responses are booming, bellowing, blustering, brandishing, breast-beating, brazen, brawny, and brutish, while females squeal, scream, screech, shriek, squawk, squeak and scurry.

The Soothing

The gentle tones of the SHH sound have the opposite effect of a scream, and millions of years of mammalian evolution has also hard-wired our responses to its high pitch. Mothers universally use some form of it to hush crying babies and comfort restless children. It's no wonder that the shh sound has percolated into our language to become synonymous with all things soft and retiring: shy, shun, shrug, shroud, shame, shrink, and shrivel. It even has a similar effect when it appears at the ends of words, as in hush, mush, plush, slush, blush, and diminish.

The soothing aspects of the high-pitched sh- sound explain why it occurs five times more commonly in female names as male names. Notice how the traditional meanings of these names reflect its feminizing quality: Shasa (precious water), Shaquille (pretty), Shauna (merciful God), Sheena (gracious) Sheera (song), Sheri, (beloved) Sherise (grace), and Shifra (beautiful) -- the Hebrew midwife who refused the order of Pharaoh to kill newborn Jewish males.

When high-pitched sounds occur at the end of names they also have a similar feminizing effect. In a study conducted by Dr. Albert Meherabian in 1992 in which respondents listed the names they felt inferred femininity, over 70% of the top twenty rated names ended with a high frequency sound including Bunny, Barbie, Fifi, Missy, Susie, Katie, Didi, Melody, Crissy, Daisy and Honey.

Sounds of the Hunt

A number of our communication techniques evolved from the endeavors of our prehistoric ancestors as cooperative hunter-gatherers. We can see contemporary remnants and examples of these words as in the speech of the Namibian !Kung bushmen of Southwest Africa whose language is substantially comprised of high frequency clicks made by contact with the side, top and bottom of the tongue against the palate.

What is significant about these sounds is that their high frequency tones have the unique property of being loud when one is close to the speaker, but drop off rapidly as the distance from the source increases. This makes such sounds ideal for communicating in the presence of prey.

Although English has no click sounds in its lexicon, it does employ similar techniques as in high pitched warning sounds like psst, shh, and shush -- perfect for alerting nearby allies without revealing one's position.

Sounds of the Femme

In primitive societies, the consensus is that the female of the species played only a minor role in protecting the group from prey animals and roving bands of competitors. They therefore had little use for the low frequency sounds that accompany aggressive male behavior. Instead of the large voice boxes (Adam's apples) found in their male counterparts, the female vocal system is designed to generate the high frequency tones that we find so universally soothing. In fact, when mothers speak to their children, they accentuate the high frequencies in their words and speak in a kind of motherese that differs in pitch from speech used in conversation with adults. Mothers also end many of their words with a rising pitch -- even when not asking a question -- and use this technique to diminutize words; cat becomes kitty, blanket - blankie, dog - doggy, mother - mommy, and father - daddy, etc. Children's names are also converted through this process with John becoming Johnny, Dan becoming Danny, and so on. The French version is -ette, resulting in Paulette, Juliette, Yvette, Annette, Lynette, while in Ireland the -in suffix denotes the diminution seen in the names: Benjamin, Colin, Darrin, and Devin.

Although expressed differently in each language, this process of diminutizing words is used by cultures across the world and plays a significant role in establishing the mother-child bond. Since motherese is used on children who are too young to actually understand the actual words, it is clear that mothers are communicating the feeling of comfort and reassurance through the use of these higher pitched tones. The following chapter demonstrates how we retain these responses as adults, and how these sounds affect our psychological reactions to names.

Letters of Mood

Consider the effect in words containing the letter M. The mm sound evokes feelings of maternal warmth as in mother's milk, mollify, summer and mammary. Evidence that our response to the M sound is innate and cross-cultural comes from the fact that the word mother is dominated by the letter M in virtually every language on earth: mater (Latin), mere (French), madre (Spanish), mer (Vietnamese), matriz (Portuguese), mama (Zulu), imma in Sanskrit and Hebrew, matka in Polish. It is also the initial letter of the archetypal mother image Mary Magdalene (Mother Mary).

The strong psychological effects of the M have not been ignored by the entertainment industry where names are routinely chosen to maximize feminine affection. Norma Jean Baker changed her name to Marilyn Monroe to enhance the mammalian aspects of her personality and became a feminine icon. This little trick seemed to have worked for a number of famous women who utilized the feminine power of the M: Mary Tyler Moore, Marla Maples, Marsha Mason, Marlee Matlin, Maid Marion, Melissa Manchester, and even the gender-erratic Marilyn Manson.

But what's good for the gander isn't always good for the goose: it was only when Marion Michael Morrison shed the maternal mantle of his MMM initials and adopted the manly moniker of John Wayne that his star rose and never dimmed.

Letters of Expression (The Vowels)

Humans had evolved a sophisticated system of facial expressions and hand signals millions of years before the development of language. Although largely replaced today by the spoken word, these cues are still an important means of expressing emotion. Anyone who travels to a foreign country where they're unable to speak the local language will find little difficulty in communicating their basic needs with hand and facial gestures alone. Because these signals are genetically hardwired into our brains, people from every culture instinctively recognize a smile, a frown, or a look of anger. It's also not uncommon for people to supplement the spoken word with facial signals as when they convert a statement to a question by raising their eyebrows, or change a remark into the negative by shaking their heads.

The defining characteristic of the vowels A, E, I, O, U, (and occasionally Y), is the tongue's lack of physical contact with the lips or palate when pronounced. Instead, the speaker modifies the shape of his mouth to alter the airflow from the lungs and by reshaping his face, unconsciously communicates the emotional state embedded in the very words he is pronouncing. This is why people who are surprised say oops, ow, ooh, oh-oh, and oy-veh, and why the universal method of getting people to appear happy in photographs is to have them say cheese. It also explains the high percentage of vowels in words that convey the basic emotions of anger (aargh), happiness (yay, yeah), surprise (ooh), playfulness (yee-hah), excitement (whee), disgust (ugh, yuck), fear (eek), and pain (ow, uh, ouch).

Words of Warning

Anyone who has had a close encounter with a snarling dog has probably found himself or herself fixated on the surprisingly large canine teeth exposed by the drawing back of the dog's upper lip. The white teeth are starkly contrasted against the black shadows of the mouth cavity and accentuated by a threatening low-frequency growl. This signal of warning is universal and is even employed by humans themselves when scolding a dog with their own version of a snarl