We share the gift of music with birds, whales and many animals; however, the level of sophistication in language that we have acquired is unique to the human species. Possibly, a longer evolutionary history with abstract sounds may have made musical rhythm more fundamental and deep seated in our consciousness than the higher level language processing. Hence, it is not surprising that in the past years, research has revealed great intimacy between musical rhythm and language. I reckon that the rhythmic component of speech may give clues about various subjective and emotional qualities of speech.
Let us consider the rhythmic aspects of the speech delivered by Barack Obama on being elected as the president of the United States. Firstly, his articulation is clear and strong, and his speed of talking is comfortably intense. The flow of eloquent sentences laden with vision and inspiration create a sense of momentum. At the same time, the last words of his sentences end at a lower pitch, perhaps signifying stability. While his sentences have an even rhythm, these are also the words on which he lays major stress. This rhythmic structure forms a ‘base pattern’, which helps create the necessary sense of anticipation. However, he bends and shakes the structure through subtle changes to create a greater effect at certain points. Most of these actions are probably subconscious or unconscious. For example, when he refers to the outrageous comments of John Mc Cain, he faintly clips the rhythmic duration of words, as if making a suggestion that they are short-lived, if not downright misplaced. [“Senator Mc Cain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment if you think George Bush has been right 90 percent of the time”]. The rhythm of his one sentence unites with those of its successors and thus, emphasizes them; these words, in turn, reinforce the previous ones.
When I listen to him speak, his accent and his choice of words become secondary – they recede into the background. What stands out is the point he is trying to make. He employs repetitions often, in words that are not of a great importance in themselves (like ‘more’), but form the backbone of a greater idea (‘more Americans have tuition beyond your reach’). Perhaps, he intended us to not distract ourselves with the specific words in his speech, and turn our focus, instead to the spirit of his words. One may observe that compared to John Mc Cain’s oration, every sentence spoken by President Obama systematically traverses a great range of pitches. The flow of his words contains an internal rhythm that radiates steadfastness, hopefulness, passion as well as levelheadedness, diligence, persistence and triumph. When speaking passionately, president Obama projects his voice towards the audience and stays for a longer duration at higher pitches. During these moments, there is also a change in the timbre and intonation of his voice. I believe that the greatness of the speech relies at least partially on the interplay of rhythm and words; the energy of his speech exemplifies his sincere promise of change, he etches the milestones towards the goal with his simple and powerful words.