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When one encounters a problem, one might exclaim "uh-oh!" What is the typical pitch interval between "uh" and "oh"?

The absolute pitches of "uh" and "oh" will depend on the speaking voice (and perhaps the mental/emotional state) of the exclaimer, but the relative interval should be fairly consistent within a culture, I would think.

I've tested myself and asked around to a couple people and it seems to be a major third (4 semitones), but I dunno - I don't have a representative sample by any means.

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3 Answers 3

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The question is related to the "Air Ball" Phenomenon, which was studied by Cherrill P. Heaton starting in 1990 and published in 1992 as "Air Ball: Spontaneous Large Group Precision Chanting." Heaton observed that at basketball games, when a player aims for the basket but misses entirely, the crowd will chant "Air Ball" in perfect unison on the notes F and D.

It sounds like a joke, and Dave Barry mentioned it in a humor column, but observers find that it continues to hold up. Heaton himself attended dozens of basketball games with a pitch pipe, and also studied video tapes of professional games.

When you say "Uh oh", does it come out on F and D?

References:

Barry, D. (1995, July 30). Failure in the Key of F. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1995/07/30/failure-in-the-key-of-f/5a88d010-a19e-43e1-963c-61abc881d077/

Word, R. (1995, September 24). "Scholar's 'Air Ball' Study Hits Serious Note. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-09-24-mn-49383-story.html

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  • This is a cool answer. I definitely recognize "air ball!" as the same (or similar) interval as "uh oh". When I said "uh oh", it came out as C->Ab. Sep 1, 2023 at 23:00
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    M3 is my oft-used - but it depends a lot on the situation as to what the question or circumstance might be as to the pitch of that M3.
    – Tim
    Sep 2, 2023 at 7:55
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    I don't know of any explanation for "air ball". It has been observed that the notes appear to be the fifth and third of a B-flat major chord, or the first two notes of The Star Spangled Banner or Sousa's Colonel Bogey march. Minor interval but major chord. If "uh-oh" is a major third, could that be a minor chord, indicative of the seriousness of the situation? Sep 2, 2023 at 22:25
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    Interestingly, I have no concept of "Air ball" (not an American, not a sports guy, not a crowd/event guy) nor am I musically experienced enough to know what "F and D" sound like. But I am confident that I know exactly what "Air ball" will sound like (confirmed by this snippet although I expected it to be longer drawn out). I think there's some very basic human underlying experience here that's driving us to all agree on what this sound conveys, similar to the Bouba/Kiki effect.
    – Flater
    Sep 4, 2023 at 0:20
  • Anecdotally, I've heard MLB chants are also similarly consistent; "Let's go (two-syllable baseball team name)" on the pitches F D F D in order... maybe something to do with the particular pitches compared to the avg range of the shouters?
    – user45266
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:19
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You say only the absolute pitches depend on emotion, but I think that's the most important factor in the interval too.

Think of Dora the Explorer saying "Uh-oh!" versus someone only half-listening to a conversation. The former could easily reach an octave (with a correspondingly dramatic rise on the "oh", maybe a fifth), while the latter might have no detectable pitch variance at all.

You could narrow it down to a more reasonable range to hear in a conversation, but that would miss the point that it communicates something different depending on how it's said. Your question could be formulated as something to study and plot on a graph, but the answer to "What is the interval?" is "It depends."

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When I recall hearing people saying "uh-oh", for me the interval seems to depend on the duration of the "uh-oh". When one says it very quickly, it can be the same repeated pitch. Spoken in a slower tempo, it's often a major third. Note that this is due to the prosodic importance of the thirds. Thirds dominate the spontaneous singing of young children as well as the pentatonic melodies of pop music, where songwriters often aim at composing melodies that resemble the natural prosodic pitches one produces when speaking the sentences.

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