FUN: Science With a Beat

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Science  27 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5662, pp. 1267
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5662.1267a

Why do people sound like Pavarotti when they sing in the shower, but like one of the caterwauling losers on American Idol the instant they step out? What causes those annoying snippets of pop songs—experts call them “earworms”—to lodge in our brains? For an entertaining riff on sound and perception, tune in to the Science of Music from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. A tile-lined shower boosts low frequencies and turns up the volume and reverb, making the voice sound richer and blurring mistakes. As for those infuriating earworms, researchers don't know why they take up residence, but they might be the brain's attempt to complete a musical phrase. The site's interactive demos include one that whisks you off to the kitchen to illustrate how much we rely on optical information to help us identify sounds—a phenomenon called visual dominance. With your eyes closed, it can be hard to distinguish the hum of a refrigerator from the wheeze of an accordion.

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