Political melodies

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The links below will allow you to listen to a brief clip from each of Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama. But there's a trick — it's not actually their voices. Instead, I've tracked the pitch and amplitude of a short passage from the speech that each of them gave on Tuesday night, and then "played" that melody on a simple synthetic instrument (just five harmonically-related sinusoids with 1/F amplitudes, not that it matters). It seems to me that you can tell who's who pretty easily — but my opinion doesn't matter, because I've heard the originals. So listen and see what you think:


Here are the originals:


(Apologies for the over-abrupt onsets and offsets — a bit more tweaking of the code is obviously in order.)

[Update 6/7/2008 — code has been tweaked — onsets and offsets should be smoother…]


  1. Don Sample said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    My read:

    1) Obama
    2) Clinton
    3) McCain

  2. Mark Paris said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    McCain's synthesized speech has a down-the-drain feel to it, while Obama's has a rising sense. Am I reading too much into it? It would be interesting to hear this for more of their speech.

  3. Rubrick said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

    Charlie Brown's mom for President!

  4. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    I was totally wrong, I guessed:
    1. Clinton
    2. McCain
    3. Obama
    All wrong.
    But I am quite deaf.

  5. Chris said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    I had a hard time. I figured the third one was mccain, but really wasn't sure between the first two. If pressed to make a guess, I think I probably would have picked right, but it would have been very close.

  6. JS Bangs said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    1) Obama (this one was obvious)
    2) Clinton
    3) McCain

    The last two were harder, mostly because I've listened to them speak less.

  7. JS Bangs said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    (After having heard the unobfuscated versions)

    I was right!

  8. leonardo o higgins said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    OK, here's how I arrived at my conclusions:
    3. McCain's was the easiest! monotonous plodder.
    2. Hilary: staccato.
    1. Obama: process of elimination.

  9. Juanita J said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    That's interesting. Being a foreigner and not so interested in USA politics, I've never listened to a speech by any of the delegates. But I decided to do the exercise anyway and see if I could determine them on the basis of gender etc correctly, and I got them all right… guess it could be chance.

  10. Eleanor said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    I got this right, but I had to listen to 2 and 3 three times each before making my decision between them and then listening to the originals. I had no hesitation about Obama but recognised him immediately. Specifically, I hear long, sustained notes which I don't think either of the others could deliver. I think of him as having a distinctive accent but I'm not sure it is an accent – it could be just more skill in the command of his voice.

    I am British, rarely watch TV, and have only ever heard any of these people speak on Air America internet radio. Obama's voice is the most familiar to me, McCain the least. But I percieve Obama's delivery as musically and technically superior. Clinton's I hear as workmanlike, she's not tin-eared and she's probably worked on it, but her talents don't really lie that way. McCain's is weakish – all right, but not expressive.

  11. Robert said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    The first one didn't strike me as Obama until I heard the second part of it. I think I recognized it from hearing the clip on the news. After realizing that it was easy to sort out the latter two.

  12. Joshua Zucker said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    The first two both sounded like Clinton to me, and the third one is clearly the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons.

  13. Philip said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

    Listening to the first two, I had no idea who was who. Not a clue. But hen I heard the third, I knew–immediately–that it was McCain, and without listening again I knew the first was Obama and the second was Clinton.

    Please do not ask me to explain because I can't.

  14. Steve Harris said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

    For me, it was quite easy:

    1: measured rhythms of an expert rhetorician

    2: hurried, rushed-together syllables, possibly expressive of exasperation

    3: long drawn-out tones of someone who displays taking everything in stride

  15. Mikki Harris said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

    I got all 3 correct and I believe it was due to the cadence of the speakers. The long presidential campaigns tend to wear on me to the point of not hearing what the candidates say after the first 6 months. Apparently the cadence patterns in their speeches has not fallen on as deaf ears as their words.

  16. ...tom... said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

    Eleanor nails it in her earlier comment.

    It is sad to think we might elect our next president based on how well they 'speechify'.

    'Heard' Obama easily . . .had no idea on the other two…


  17. Jackie said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 3:50 am

    Beautiful! I recognized Obama immediately; he has a very distinctive rhythm andtone. McCain's strange, sad monotony was easy too. I found Hillary hard but I think that was because the almost-trill at the start caught me off guard.

    Thank you!

  18. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 7:40 am

    As the only person who admits to getting them all wrong, at least it shows I'm voting for Obama based on more than the sound of his voice.

  19. Robert Delius Royar said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    How would your technique render JFK's statement "we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too"?

    To me, the obfuscated version of Obama's speech captures the cadence I recall from that passage. That is the speech I first thought of when I heard the first example.

    [(myl) If someone can point me to the audio for the JFK speech in question, I'll be happy to try it.]

  20. Rebecca said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    I found it to be fairly straightforward. Obama is an orator; his rises and falls are quite distinctive. McCain's speech is quicker and more relentless and alternates between two pitches, as if he were constantly trying to convince the audience of something. Clinton's was…the other one, though it instinctively seemed right.

  21. ben said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 3:58 am

    The comments are an interesting study in confirmation bias.

  22. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 5:11 am

    You ought to try some other well-known political oratory like de Gaulle's 'vive le Quebec libre', and something by Martin Luther King and Hitler, and see how it varies by language.

  23. Chris Barts said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 8:50 am

    1. Clinton
    2. McCain
    3. Obama

    It might be interesting to do a politician (say, GHWB) and a parody of that politician (say, Dana Carvey's famous parody). Would we even be able to tell it was meant to be the same person?

  24. Robert Delius Royar said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    The full speech is available in an MPG film at http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/jfk_rice_speech.mpg The section begins about 8'45" into the film.
    An audio-only version is at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/mp3clips/politicalspeeches/jfkriceuniversity54339.mp3
    The section also begins around 8'45" into the clip.

  25. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 3:14 am

    Mo Vanderlism, your perception was mine exactly. I'm tempted to say the original clips aren't representative, but more critically, they represent three different kinds of speech acts , seemingly in disparate settings , which would render them not really comparable. Barack is straining to be heard, while stressing a serious prepared point. Hillary is delighted to be repeating what a voter said . McCain sounds like he's replying impromptu to a reporter's question. Not to be defensive! :)

  26. Mo VanderLism said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    Thank you, Janice Huth Byer. Of course you're quite right.

  27. Melissa Bollbach said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 12:19 am

    I agree with Janice Huth Byer, I thought the McCain quote sounded more like how Hillary has been speaking at the end of her campaign, even when I listened to the spoken versions.

    Great idea, thanks Dr. Liberman for posting it!

  28. Kevin said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

    Wow, I was not able to figure out any of the clips. I had no clue whatsoever.

    It was actually quite humorous. Here's what I heard in each of the clips:
    1. Buh buh buh buh buh buh buh buh. Bawah obama oh.
    2. Obama oh. Buh buh buh. Buh buh buh buh buh. Buh buh. Buh buh.
    3. Wah uh oh. Oh oh wah obama bawah obama obama wah oh obama wah oh oh.

    It's like the parents from the Peanuts cartoons are having a conversation about Obama.

  29. Juls said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    Interesting. My 7 year old grandson, while listening to all three candidates, noted that Mr. Obama 'talks at you' instead of to you. If you listen to the intonation, it does seem to be the case.

  30. Ollock said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 8:22 am


    I was able to pick it out really quick. Obama's patterns are very distinctive because of his tendency to "hold out" certain syllables for emphasis when he gives speeches.

  31. loadstah said,

    September 3, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    This was not a test of voice recognition as the speech excerpts had different purposes. Obama's was inspiring; Hiliary's was rhetoric; McCain's was positional. They were all meant to persuade. I found it interesting that there was some mention that McCane's inspired down-tone or pain. I find Hillary too often pandering and patronizing and I hear it in her delivery. Barwack has gotten better over more than a year of speech at mastering, matching and playing the crowd response. Substance gives no basis to what will come to pass, so we should look hard at style.

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