All Ears: Listening For The Meaning Between The Words

As the work of many experimental and pop musicians shows, sounds made by a body that don't cohere into recognizable language can still have emotional clarity.
Source: Angela Hsieh

The potency of "It's Not Right But It's Okay," Whitney Houston's triumphant 1999 call out single, hangs from a tiny ad lib she deploys with surgical efficiency. She uses it to puncture the song's third line, "If six of y'all went out — uhhh -- then four of you were really cheap," succinctly conveying a range of emotions from disgust to disappointment in a single second. A minute later, she whips it out again to temper the uplifting sentiment of the chorus. Here the "uhhh" works as a raised hand, a way of saying "don't even think about it" to a cheating lover without wasting a breath.

Lyrics can be pored over, their meanings endlessly debated, but non-verbal vocals, like Whitney's "uhhh," contain multitudes that somehow get straight to the point. They make sense on an instinctual level in part because they are familiar: Human bodies unwittingly make sounds in response to moments of intensely felt emotion, from pain to pleasure. It's these kind of ad libs that imbue a song with intimacy, and an artist's idiosyncratic take on vocalization that cements their identity in the public's subconscious.

While their meanings can feel innate, there's a level of sophistication involved in interpreting non-verbal exclamations. A scream can raise alarm or indicate extreme amusement, and a "mmm," amongst other things, delight or hesitation. Yet because these mouth sounds make up such a huge part of everyday communication, discerning

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