In English, we describe pitches as "high" and "low", as being "sharp" or "flat". A timbre can be "fat". At least one study suggests that there is a human tendency to perceive higher pitches as being higher in space and lower pitches to be lower in space.1

What additional evidence is there to suggest this type of correlation? Sound quality as having a spatial or other non-hearing descriptor that is part of our literal perception?

I have in mind two particular areas of evidence:

  1. Studies like Mudd's (see note) that demonstrate the literal associations (including whether the words reflect perception or vice-versa -- i.e., we develop a spatial sense because of the words used to describe).
  2. Linguistic/historical usage, such as terms used in other non-English languages/cultures, contemporary or historical. Do those terms show a consistency of perception across time and/or culture?

1 Mudd, S. A. (1963). Spatial stereotypes of four dimensions of pure tone. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66, 347–352. Referenced in Diana Deutsch (2019). Musical Illusions and Phanton Words (Oxford University Press).

  • 2
    This question isn't really on-topic. Mar 2 at 1:25
  • 3
    You may be interested in the Bouba/Kiki experiment
    – Edward
    Mar 2 at 4:25
  • 2
    I don't know if it's entirely off topic here but I bet you'd get better answers on psychology stackexchange.
    – Edward
    Mar 2 at 4:26
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    @PeterSmith "Literal" in the sense that the listener's actual perception is that a "high" sound is originating from a higher point in space than a "low" sound. The sound is perceived as originating from a literally higher spacial position than the low sound. Thus "high" and "low" descriptions of sound are less metaphor and more direct expression of our "literal" (actual) perception.
    – Aaron
    Mar 2 at 5:26
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    Some other languages, like Farsi, use thin and thick instead of high and low, respectively. Non-native speakers can be taught this paradigm, but not its reverse: "But, in an intriguing twist, the researchers found that the metaphor couldn’t be reversed. Dutch participants who were taught to associate high-pitched sounds with “thick” and low-pitched sounds with “thin” were unaffected by thick and thin lines presented on the screen" psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/…
    – awe lotta
    Mar 2 at 13:31

Not really. Some music theory exchanges the terms high and low as there are instruments with the higher (towards the player's head) strings sounding "lower" musically than the lower (toward the player's feet) strings.

The terms flat and sharp don't seem to correspond to either level or acute angular objects. The terms "major" and "minor" arose from the size of one of the thirds (four vs three half-steps) however older words corresponded to "soft" and "hard." Historically these terms relate to a "b" with a rounded body and a "b" with a square body like "h" with a bottom (which echoes down the years as B and H in German and a few other languages.)

Some authors have termed phrases starting on an upbeat as "feminine" and those starting on a downbeat as "masculine" while other authors reverse these terms. (Electrical socket nameing makes sense though.)

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    Although I agree with this answer, I have to say that as far as the first paragraph is concerned, please, please don't say that. I play double bass and it's not uncommon for people to tell high (referring to the notes near my head) but I understand high (as in register -- near my feet). My joke answer after they explain what they need is "Oh you meant geographically high" Mar 2 at 6:42
  • @Shevliaskovic - rather like naming guitar strings..? Fat and thin work better than high and low!
    – Tim
    Mar 2 at 8:20
  • To add more context to this answer, German words for major and minor correspond to "hard" and "soft", respectively ("dur" means major, while "moll" means minor).
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 2 at 12:58
  • In bell-ringing and in gamelan (and probably plenty of other examples), higher pitches are smaller numbers.
    – awe lotta
    Mar 2 at 13:34

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