Knox Student Researches Musicality of Speech

May 21, 2013

Megan Beney '13

by Laura Pochodylo '14

Baby talk is serious business for Knox College senior Megan Beney, who has been conducting research on the musical qualities of the speech that people use when talking to infants.

She has been studying how adults adjust the musical intonation of their words and phrases to say things in a way that reflects the response they seek from infants. For example, adults often use calm, soothing tones when trying to comfort a fussy baby.

"I am looking at the way prosodic intentionality, which is whether a speaker is trying to convey a certain type of emotion or produce a certain type of behavior from the listener, is musically constructed," Beney said.

To do this, she has recorded parents interacting normally with their children and analyzed the patterns of their speech.

"I'm essentially wondering if there is some kind of relationship between intentionality and musicality," Beney said. "Does a prosodic intention have a rising melodic curve or a certain kind of dynamic level?"

Fellow students have lent their ears to rate the sound samples Beney has extracted in categories of musicality and intentionality. The samples have the goal of eliciting one of several responses from infants: attention, comfort, approval, or prohibition. Beney is trying to see if there is any correlation between the sound patterns within these categorizations.Megan Beney '13

(Photo at right: As part of Knox's Opera Workshop, Megan Beney, center, and fellow students Mattie Gulyash and Paula Castanos rehearse "Three Little Maids" from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

This is not the first time Beney has recorded parents and interpreted the results. While studying abroad in India, Beney conducted similar research with mothers there.

"It was the pilot of my project," Beney said. "I was basically able to do the project I did here, but in India."

Beney's interest in the musicality of speech emerged early in her Knox career.

"I like to say that the roots of my project began my [first] year, with a course in Human Origins [Anthropology and Sociology 101]," Beney said. "In the last week or two of that class, we were talking about the emergence of language, and I just thought that was the coolest thing."

Beney developed her interest and her project through a Ford Fellowship during her junior year, and expanded it as an Honors project.

A double major in music and anthropology and sociology, Beney recently presented her work at the Central States Anthropological Society conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

"I've presented my research in other formats on campus, like Horizons and a summer seminar," Beney said. "This was my first time presenting off campus, and it went really well."

Beney credits the small and personal environment at Knox for a lot of her success.

"Knox really allows for an interdisciplinary environment, so my project is in both of my departments and I can't imagine a larger institution, which is a lot more sectionalized, would have allowed me to do that," Beney said.

"I love my relationships with my professors because I really feel like they allow for mentorships to evolve. You're not a number here," Beney said.

"You know everyone by their name and their face, and that's something that I know if I hadn't had, my experience would have been completely different. It's just a people-centric place, and I like that."