New CD by UCSD psychologist explores phantom words, memory for musical tones, & other sound

July 18, 2003

The brain is constantly striving to find meaning in things, even in situations where there is no meaning. This attempt to find meaning can often lead to what music perception pioneer Diana Deutsch calls 'illusions in the brain.' Just as one might imagine seeing, for example, the outline of a woman's face in a gnarled tree trunk, in its grasp for meaning, the brain often produces auditory illusions that lead us to hear phantom words.

"Phantom Words and Other Curiosities," a new CD by Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, includes numerous instructive and entertaining sound demonstrations to provide researchers and amateur scientists with the resources to conduct research on how the brain processes sound. The CD will be released at the Second Annual Citizen Science Conference in Pasadena, CA on July 17-20. Like Deutsch's earlier CD, "Musical Illusions and Paradoxes," the demonstrations in "Phantom Words and Other Curiosities" are based on discoveries by Deutsch.

Members of the news media can listen to selected tracks from "Phantom Words and Other Curiosities," by visiting the following web site:

The first set of tracks on "Phantom Words..." includes a series of demonstrations in which certain words are repeated over and over again. The words are presented in stereo and are offset from each other in time. After continued exposure to these words, listeners begin to 'hear' words that aren't on the track. According to Deutsch, who has played her sound demonstrations to hundreds of her students, the extraneous words people hear are quite subjective, often reflecting the listener's current state of mind.

"This is like an audio Rorschach test," said Deutsch. "If someone is on a diet they tend to hear words related to food or dieting. Women often hear things of a romantic nature, whereas men do not. Even native speakers of languages other than English tend to hear words and phrases in their native language."

The words that are heard typically change into different words and phrases with continued listening. To experience these phantom words, the sound demonstrations must be listened to continuously, preferably with two stereo loudspeakers in front of the listener with one each side, said Deutsch.

"Although this sounds quite strange and people have insisted that I must have inserted new words into the tracks, the explanation is rather simple," said Deutsch. "The phantom words are generated by the brain in an attempt to create order out of the chaos of sound that is presented. This also explains why listeners tend to hear words that are meaningful to them."

Also explored on the CD is the mysterious no-man's-land between speech and music. Composers throughout the ages have played with relationships between speech and music, either by composing music that shares some of the qualities of speech or by embedding segments of speech in musical contexts. In this demonstration, a simple phrase -- 'sometimes behaves so strangely'-- is spoken repeatedly. Towards the end of the track, a curious thing happens: the words that are spoken start to sound as if they are being sung.

"We don't really know why the brain hears speech as speech and music as music," said Deutsch. "This demonstration opens the door to uncovering new connections between speech and music." Another set of tracks contains an experiment on short-term memory for the pitch of a musical tone. The listener hears two test tones that are separated by a time interval during which other tones are presented. Under these conditions, most people find it difficult to tell whether the test tones are the same or different in pitch, even though they can ignore the other tones. However, when spoken words are presented during this interval instead of other tones, most listeners have no trouble recalling the pitch of the earlier tones.

"This experiment," said Deutsch, "shows a striking dissociation between musical tones and spoken words in memory, and indicates that separate memory stores are responsible for retaining different aspects of sound."

Also featured on the CD is a new musical illusion that Deutsch calls the 'cambiata illusion.' Although this illusion can be demonstrated through stereo loudspeakers, it is best heard through stereo headphones. The listener is presented with two repeating patterns, one in each ear. Although the tones in each pattern vary markedly in pitch, many listeners instead hear two melodies formed by tones that are close in pitch, which musicians call 'cambiata patterns.' Furthermore, right-handed listeners tend to hear the higher tones on the right and the lower tones on the left while left-handed listeners have more varied listening experiences. Patterns of cerebral dominance, explained Deutsch, are different in left-handed people.

Deutsch, who has discovered a number of striking musical illusions and paradoxes over the last few decades, plans to undertake an in-depth MRI study to gain further insight into these most recent discoveries. Her past research has explored the way we hold musical information in memory, how we relate the sounds of music and speech to each other, and the puzzle of absolute pitch and why it is thought to be so rare. A world renowned authority on musical perception, Deutsch is the editor of "The Psychology of Music," (Academic Press,1982, 2nd edition 1999) and served as the founding editor of the journal Music Perception and is the founding president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition.
Advance copies of "Phantom Words..." are available to members of the news media by contacting Deutsch at For more information about Deutsch and her work please visit her web site at: More information about her earlier CD, "Musical Illusions and Paradoxes," can be obtained at

University of California - San Diego

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