How much does it really matter which words a song uses?
Does it really matter whether a song uses the word “crack” or the word “rift”? After all, both words have the same meaning, and they have the same number of syllables.
But oddly enough, the sounds in a word can affect us psychologically and change how we feel.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. And over the month of October, we’re doing a mini-series where we take a look at 4 famous horror themes (and a fifth one on Patreon) to answer the question “What makes music scary?” So let’s take a look at what makes the theme from Friday the 13th scary.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the theme at SongAppealOfficial.com/FridayThe13th. Just like the movie, that’s not the word “thirteenth”, it’s the numbers 1-3, then the letters “t-h”.
You can also support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
This episode will be spoiler-free.
It’s hard to tell sometimes why people feel the way they do about a word.
Sometimes, people like a word because of what it means. One tumblr user posted “as a college student, my favorite words are “cancelled” and “free”.” But when another tumblr user put those words in the order “Free pizza is cancelled”, the words became revolting. Or more specifically, the meaning of the sounds became revolting.
But sometimes, people like or dislike a word because of how it sounds. The poet Philip Wells once said that his most hated word was “pulchritude”. Because even though it means “beauty”, the word sounds ugly.
There are plenty of sounds that change how we feel about a word. But since meaning and sound can both affect how we feel, let’s take away the meaning entirely and look at a sound by itself so we can really know how it makes us feel.
I told someone yesterday that the Friday the 13th theme uses the sound “ki ki ki” and they replied “That’s really creepy”. Why is it creepy when it has no meaning? Because the sound alone makes us feel like we’re in danger because “ki ki ki” sounds sharp and almost evil to us.
When we say the sound is “sharp”, we usually think that’s a metaphor, but it’s a lot more psychological than you might think.
I want you to imagine that I gave you two shapes: a star and a circle. Now imagine I told you that one of those shapes is named “bouba” and the other is named “kiki”. Which one is “kiki”? The round shape? Or the pointy shape?
In almost every language and culture, the answer is virtually always the same. The star shape is “kiki” and the round shape is “bouba”. In English, the connection between the sound “ki” and sharpness is so strong that we describe sharp shapes with words like “spiky” or “prickly”. That nearly-universal connection between specific sounds and specific shapes is called (fittingly) the Bouba-Kiki Effect.
Why do our brains do this?
V. S. Ramachandran (who named the Bouba-Kiki Effect) suggested this reason: When we put sounds into our memory, we store those sounds in different groups based on their descriptions. Is this a sharp sound? Is this a harsh sound? Is this a round sound? He continued to suggest that we store shapes in similar groups based on their descriptions. Is this shape sharp? Is it harsh? Is it round? When the descriptions match, when we hear a sharp sound and see a sharp shape, we feel like the sound describes the shape.
We all personify things a little more than you might expect (source: ). We say a shirt is “loud”, or a voice is “grating”. Of course we would say that sound like “kiki” is “sharp”.
So when the theme from Friday the 13th plays a sound like “ki ki ki”, we can feel that there’s something sharp and dangerous, like a machete. The sound gives us the impression that something could kill you.
And not only could something kill you, but that “ki ki ki” sound makes us feel like it wants to kill you, for no other reason than because it’s evil.
The linguist David Crystal once wrote: “Here’s an experiment. You’re in a spaceship approaching a planet. You’ve been told there are two races on it, one beautiful and friendly to humans, the other unfriendly, ugly and mean-spirited. You also know that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks. Which is which?”
He continued: “Most people assume that the Lamonians are the nice guys. It’s all a matter of [something called] sound symbolism. Words with soft sounds such as “l”, “m” and “n”… are interpreted as “nicer'” than words with hard sounds such as “g” and “k”….”
Linguists would say that hard sounds like “k” fall into the category of “cacophony”, which is a great word to describe it because of how many “k” sounds there are. The California Federation of Chaparral Poets described “cacophony” as “discordant”, “harsh”, and “unpleasant”, and that “[help] to convey disorder”. In short, cacophony makes words sound almost evil.
That’s why the Grataks don’t sound as friendly as the Lamonians.
That’s why Philip Wells hates the word “pulchritude” so much: because of its cacophony.
That’s why Tolkein (who loved this branch of linguistics) names his evil races using cacophony-filled words like “orcs” and “uruk-hai”, and specific members of those races had names with even more cacophony, like “Grishnákh” and “Uglúk”. Even if you don’t know anything about these characters, you know they’re evil because of how much cacophony is in their names
And when you hear a cacophony-filled sound like “ki ki ki”, you don’t just feel like someone could kill you because of how sharp the sound is, you feel like it will kill you, because it sounds evil.
In last week’s episode about the Jaws theme, we talked about how a piece of music can represent a character in our minds, even when the character isn’t onscreen, and the theme from Friday the 13th does exactly that. There are times when the killer is around, but isn’t actually shown on screen, so the composer decided to represent the killer with music. When you hear “ki ki ki ma ma ma”, you know the killer is there.
But the sound had to do more than just show up whenever the killer was there. The sound had to represent the killer. It had to be a sound that would make us feel what we would feel if the killer were there on screen. That sound represents the killer perfectly and scares us effectively by making us feel like the characters aren’t the only ones in danger, we’re in danger. And we can feel that because “ki ki ki” sounds sharp and almost evil to us.
That’s why it matters whether a song uses the word “crack” or “rift”: Because the sounds of a word change how we feel, from making us like a word to terrifying us for over 30 years.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
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Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible by the generous donations of the following patrons: