That wonderfully rich quote comes from Anne Fernald, the head of Stanford Institute’s Center for Infant Studies during an interview on a RadioLab podcast, one of my favorite NPR science programs. The program segment was titled Sound as Touch and explores the mechanical, biochemical and electrical nature of our sound receptors along with sound’s psychological impact.
Professor Fernald took her tape recorder around the world and discovered that there are four universal “melodies” that all infants can understand no matter the culture or language. For example, when praising an infant (“Good baby.”) everyone invariably drops the pitch of the second word. Even though the child doesn’t understand the words, she knows she is being praised. Professor Fernald compares this to the universality of the non-verbal essence of touch communication.
Sound waves literally touch the bones in our ear and set them to vibrating. Indeed, these waves wash over our whole body and can touch us very deeply physically and emotionally. Orators and musicians are especially tuned in to this phenomenon. As a bodyworker I know that my massage starts the moment I greet a customer.
You can listen to the full segment Sound as Touch. By the way, the other three universal melodies that infants understand are those that comfort, that call attention, and that stop.