Ground control to music fun – The science of hearing
What links air traffic controllers and music? (Apart from Major Tom, of course, but more on that later*). Not much at first glance, but in exploring the science behind misheard lyrics and the ‘cocktail party problem’, vocal ensemble The Clerks began with an auditory streaming test developed for Airforce pilots and air traffic controllers.
The test was devised by Douglas Brungart, originally to help the American Airforce, and focusses on the intelligibility of words in amongst a lot of other words and noise. It uses phrases in the form <NAME> go to <COLOUR> <NUMBER>, which is why The Clerks’ first performance experiment piece is called: ‘Roger go to Yellow Three’.
Their project, Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing, is a performance-based exploration of why we are able to follow some lyrics and texts in music, and why we mishear others. It began life when The Clerks’ director, Edward Wickham looked a bit deeper into the ‘jumble of texts’ in medieval music and thinking about what audiences are supposed to make of them.
With the support of an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, the Clerks have been working with composer Christopher Fox and speech scientists Sarah Hawkins and Antje Heinrich to develop specially commissioned music, scientific demonstrations and live listening tests, and they go on tour this month.
The technical term for misheard lyrics is “mondegreen”, after a famous mishearing of the words “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen”, in a Scottish ballad. While The Clerks are busy looking at the science behind these mishearings we asked you for examples of lyrics that you’d misheard. Here are some of our favourites (with each song title listed in case you don’t recognise it from the jumbled lyric!):
“Last night I dreamt of some petrol” – La Isla Bonita, Madonna
“The girl with colitis walks by” – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, The Beatles
“I miss you like gravy” – Miss you like Crazy, Natalie Cole
“Don’t go Jason Waterfall” – Waterfalls, TLC
“Jesus, Whoa-oh” – Feed the World, Band Aid
“Sellotape, Sellotape, Sellotape” – Sail Away, Enya
“My love has got no money, he’s got his dungarees” – Freed from Desire, Gala
“The cross-eyed bear that you gave to me” – You oughta know, Alanis Morrissette
“Your voice is soft like submarine” – Jolene, Dolly Parton
“Messing in the bathroom” – Message in a bottle, The Police
“Making love with a seagull” – Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie
“I elongated my left thumb” – Cornerstone, Arctic Monkeys
“God loves Alan Turing” – Same Love, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
“Dance then, wherever you may be; I am The Lord of the dance settee” – Lord of the Dance, Sydney Carter
“Cherry pie, cherry pie, poker face” – Poker Face, Lady Gaga
“You’re gonna be the one at Sainsbury’s” – Wonderwall, Oasis
*And of course – “Grant control to Megatron” or “Clown control to Mao Tse Tung” – Space Oddity, David Bowie
If this list leaves you worrying about your own listening skills then you can visit The Clerks’ website and try out a series of tests.
You can catch Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing across the UK from October 8th 2013.