Musical languages

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The latest Dinosaur Comics:

The mouseover title: "whistle morse code with dot as a D note and dash as a G flat and you're already there, laying down the sickest of beats. a truly unwell beat"

What would this sound like?

Well, the text in the first panel — "I have constructed a language based on music" — turns into Morse code this way:

.. / …. .- …- . / -.-. — -. … – .-. ..- -.-. – . -.. / .- / .-.. .- -. –. ..- .- –. . / -… .- … . -.. / — -. / — ..- … .. -.-.

which sounds something like this in Ryan North's musical language (minus the whistling part, and with apologies to real Morse coders):

which I agree is a truly unwell beat.

Meanwhile, the internets are buzzing with Binary Fungus Language, following on Adam Adamatzkey, "Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity", Royal Society 4/6/2022:

Fungi exhibit oscillations of extracellular electrical potential recorded via differential electrodes inserted into a substrate colonized by mycelium or directly into sporocarps. We analysed electrical activity of ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis), Enoki fungi (Flammulina velutipes), split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune) and caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps militaris). The spiking characteristics are species specific: a spike duration varies from 1 to 21 h and an amplitude from 0.03 to 2.1 mV. We found that spikes are often clustered into trains. Assuming that spikes of electrical activity are used by fungi to communicate and process information in mycelium networks, we group spikes into words and provide a linguistic and information complexity analysis of the fungal spiking activity. We demonstrate that distributions of fungal word lengths match that of human languages. We also construct algorithmic and Liz-Zempel complexity hierarchies of fungal sentences and show that species S. commune generate the most complex sentences.

So has T Rex been scooped by Schizophyllum commune?

More on that  later. For now, I'll just note that additional evidence of communicative intelligence outside the animal kingdom might be problematic for vegetarians — though of course we've known for a long time that even bacteria communicate.

(And I should add that simple random processes have long been known to generate sequences with language-like statistical properties — whether the mushroom-talk recordings are susceptible to such interpretation remains to be seen.)

Update — I did a quick search of Ryan North's recent book How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain, and he seems to have left out instructions for communicating with your secret fungus army…

Update #2 — Following up on a comment by Dara Conolly, here's the morse-code sample using a tritone instead of a major third:

Definitely more unwell, as expected for the diabolus in musica.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 6:08 am

    I can easily understand why you felt that italicising the Linnæan binomials was unecessary in quoting an excerpt from the Royal Society paper, Mark, and for the most part I was able to read the except as intended. But I really struggled when I reached the part which read "and show that species S. commune generate the most complex sentences" — italicisation of S. commune really would have helped there.

  2. Chris Button said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 6:19 am

    I was expecting a reference to so-called “whistled languages” here.

    One notable study is by Theodore Stern (1957) “Drum and whistle languages” in the Chin hills of Burma, who incidentally also wrote a brilliant analysis of Sizang Chin (put to much good use by Edwin Pulleyblank in Old Chinese in terms of what surface vowel length actually reflects underlyingly)

    [(myl) See also "Pirahã channels", 5/21/2006; and "Dinosaur intonation", 8/28/2021.]

  3. Chris Button said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 6:21 am

    *surface sonorant length rather (not just vowels—vowels being just a kind of sonorant after all)—hence why the Stern’s study of Sizang is so important (and, as one might expect, largely overlooked)

  4. Yuval said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 7:20 am

    "Liz-Zempel complexity" is a hell of a spoonerism, or malapropism, or whatever the hell, to appear in a scientific abstract. Within the text: "Liv-Zempel". Citation, of course, to Ziv & Lempel.

    [(myl) The obligatory screenshot:


  5. Philip Taylor said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    I have just read the referees' comments, Yuval — not one appears to have picked up on this. I had at first wondered whether the paper had been submitted on 1st April, but the referees' comments pre-date that.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 1:02 pm

    The journal's name is Royal Society Open Science (RSOS).

  7. Dara Connolly said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 5:58 pm

    I suspect from the choice of "G-flat" as one of the tones of the language that the author's intent was to evoke a disharmonious interval such as a tritone, in which case he/she could have chosen the notes C and G-flat. Think of the first two notes of the Simpsons theme.

    As we can hear from the audio representation in the post, D and G-flat represent an interval of a major third, which is one of the more consonant or harmonious intervals. Think of the first two notes of "When the Saints go marching in".

    [(myl) Yes, I wondered about that…
    Here's the sample using a tritone instead of a major third:


  8. JPL said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 8:17 pm

    @Dara Connolly:

    Your mention of intervals raises the question of a still quite interesting phenomenon, not addressed by the dinosaur, of the ability of chords (not letters) to evoke what you might call "sentiments", i.e., they seem to express a definite emotional significance (beyond the harmony/discord distinction), even independently of their melodic (syntactic) context. Why is that, how does that work, I would like to know.

  9. JPL said,

    April 17, 2022 @ 8:28 pm

    Not to mention the ability of chord sequences (progressions), more than the single notes, to express still more definite "sentiments".

  10. Emily said,

    April 18, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    It's been done and it's called SolReSol.

  11. Dara Connolly said,

    April 18, 2022 @ 12:58 pm

    @JPL, intervals that represent a simple ratio of frequencies (2:1, 3:2, 4:3, etc.) are usually perceived as harmonious. For example the ratio 3:2 is a perfect fifth (e.g. the interval between G and D) and the interval 5:4 is a minor third (the interval between A and C).

    The tritone interval (e.g. C to F-sharp, or F to B), by contrast, is not characterised by a ratio of small numbers; in fact the ratio is the square root of 2 which is not a rational number at all. Something in our hearing apparatus causes us to perceive this as disharmonious.

    A harmonic sequence such as the popular "Let it Be" 4-chord loop I-V-vi-IV – (e.g G-D-Em-C) relies on what is called "functional harmony". In any given key, certain chords create a feeling of tension, and seem to "want" to resolve to another, more stable chord. Others (the tonic, the dominant) feel more stable and less tense. A sequence of chords can therefore tell a simple emotional "story".

    I know these explanations fail to answer the "why" question, and fail to address the question of how much is universal and how much is specific to a given culture.

    [(myl) Though in fairness, a tempered fifth is 2^(7/12) ≈ 1.498307 rather than 3/2 = 1.5.

    And various other tunings have other problems — see Wikipedia on the Pythagorean comma, or "Pavarotti and the crack to chaos", 9/9/2007, where I quote Thomas McEvilley, "The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies":

    It requires a leap of horizon to understand the intensity with which such things mattered to ancient thinkers. … The issue which made [the Pythagorean comma] so pressingly important was nothing less than the question .. whether reality is mathematical or not.

    When Pythagoras discovered (or learned) the so-called Pythagorean Theorem, … it is said that he hastened to sacrifice oxen. He felt that he had touched on a power center in the mathematical fabric of the universe. …

    The Pythagorean Theorem is the threshold to the discovery of irrational numbers and incommensurable lengths — a discovery which Hellenists attribute to Hippasus of Tarentum, a renegade Pythagorean whom, according to one account, Pythagoras pushed off a boat for revealing to outsides the tragic secret of the Pythagorean Theorem, which was irrationality or incommensurability. … The discovery that the side and diagonal of a square will always be incommensurable produced an ideological convulsion in the Pythagorean order comparable to the shock conveyed by the discovery of the Precession or the Pythagorean comma. … Like the Precessional drift and the Pythagorean comma, this apparent crack or gap in the mathematical fabric of the universe seemed ominous, as if such cracks lead through the membrane of order to chaos. They deny that the universe is orderly and hence that it is cognizable, and thereby remove credibility from all human thought. The Precession threatens the calendar and all the depends on it, and through the Pythagorean comma, as through a crack to chaos, the plethora of untuned sounds that could disrupt the harmony of the universe flows in.

    See also "The Pythagorean Catastrophe", 2/18/2020.]

  12. Theodore said,

    April 18, 2022 @ 3:36 pm

    The tritone version of the "unwell beat" unsurprisingly bears a resemblance to the introduction to the song "YYZ" by Rush. (Which was something I learned as a teenager and nascent bass guitarist in the mid 1980s.) The intro is essentially a tritone played in the rhythm of Morse Code for "YYZ" (Toronto's airport code).

    [(myl) According to Jon Wiederhorn, "The Devil's Chord: The Eerie History of 'Diabolus in Musica'", the use of tritones in heavy metal

    is often credited to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi who played it in the song “Black Sabbath” from the band’s 1970 self-titled first album. Although Iommi was untrained in music theory, he devised the three-note passage after listening to a piece of classical music he and bassist Geezer Butler enjoyed by Gustav Holst called “Mars, The Bringer of War” from the suite The Planets (written in 1914).

    More detail is available in "Is all Heavy Metal Based on a Single Act of Plagiarism?".

    FWIW, here's Gustave Holst's 1914 theme:

    And Tony Iommi's 1970 version:


  13. Dara Connolly said,

    April 19, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    The descending tritone as heard in Holst's Mars, Black Sabbath's "Black Sabbath" and Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" may be even more unsettling than the ascending version, especially for audiences less accustomed to hearing it than we are today.

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