The notes of Candace's complaint

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Commenting on "Three-syllable Mom" (12/28/2009), Brooke observes that

You can hear a genuine three-syllable "Mom" in the opening title sequence of the kids' television show, "Phineas and Ferb." The character Candace says,

"Mmm-MO-om, Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence!"

The pitch matches the stress, low-high-low. The first syllable is brief but clearly discernible. I suppose one could argue that it's not a true syllable, since it lacks a vowel, but the word is certainly three distinct beats.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I can bring you the audio (performed by Ashley Tisdale) as well as a still of Candace in mid-complaint:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

A pitch track of the "Mom!" part shows that there are indeed three notes, though not really three syllables (or three "beats"), since the first pitch is clearly limited to the initial [m] (just as Brooke describes it).

(Click on the image for a larger version. The mis-tracking of pitch at the edge of the high note may be in some sense real, being caused by some laryngealization that may actually cause temporary period doubling.)

The pitches are roughly 250, 614 and 464 Hz, which (relative to A 440) are approximatly b, d#", and a#'. (Given those values, the first note is about 18 cents sharp relative to a concert A, the middle note is about 22 cents flat of tempered concert D#, and the third note is about 8 cents flat relative to tempered A#. But different choices of measurement points or regions would give different numbers.)

Here's a plot for the "Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence!" part of the complaint, where there are (what I take to be) two more replications of the same pattern:

Contrary to the opinions of several commenters on the earlier post, there's no sign of a rise on the final note, either in the "Mo-om!" phrase or in the "…title sequence" phrase.  That agrees with my own impressions about this pattern. But they may be right about their own variants — or in fact, this instance may be closer to the traditional vocative intonation, since it represents appeal to a distant mother, rather than reproof of a present one.  I repeat my earlier call to send me audio clips, either of other renditions in popular culture, or in your own performance.



  1. Mr Punch said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    I believe that this rising pitch to indicate complaint is technically known as "whining."

  2. Martin Ball said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    The fact that there's no vowel is no bar on syllabicity. Sonorants can often act as syllable nuclei in English and many languages. So, a syllabic [m] is perfectly okay!

    [(myl) True in general -- the expression conventionally transcribed "mm-hmm" is an example -- but not in this case, I think.]

  3. MZ said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    Another popular culture example comes from HBO’s Summer Heights High, when the drama teacher (Mr. G) reminisces about his childhood.

    [(myl) Thanks! Those are clearly calls (to someone out of immediate contact) rather than the expression of exasperation (a sort of "intonational eye-roll") that was featured in the original Cathy strip. One of the questions on the table is whether the exasperation intonation is systematically different in pitch contour from the vocative intonation. So this one is certainly relevant, but I'm especially interested in the exasperation examples (where the addressee is already in conversational contact).]

  4. Martha the Premade Scrapbook Lady said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    Comedian Louie Anderson does a hilarious routine called "Mom, Louie's looking at me," in which the classic multi-syllabic "mom" is key to the humor. Couldn't find it on YouTube. You might want to keep an eye out for it.

  5. Anne of Camp Labels Mom said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    My kids love watching Phineas and Ferb. I would have to agree with Mr. Punch on this one though. Whining is one stop short of crying.

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