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UofGH thesis instructor Dr. Paolo Ammirante publishes research on vowel use in hip-hop music

Dr. Paolo Ammirante

Opera singers boost the high-frequency energy in their voices so that they can be heard over the orchestra. Do emcees in hip-hop music face the same challenge with making their voices heard? Do they use certain vowels on the beat versus off the beat, to project their voices over the beat? A research study by University of Guelph-Humber Psychology Thesis Instructor Dr. Paolo Ammirante, titled “Vowel Formant Structure Predicts Metric Position in Hip-Hop Lyrics” explored these questions. The study was published in the journal Music Perception.

Vowel choice in hip-hop lyrics

Dr. Ammirante says he noticed there wasn’t much prior research on this topic, and wanted to fill that gap. “There’s a lot of great analysis about the cultural history of hip-hop, but little analysis of the music itself, so I wanted to make a contribution to that literature,” says Dr. Ammirante. “I wondered about this issue in hip-hop music … a lot of the important words happen at the same time as the beat – including about 50% of rhymes. So there’s this challenge of those words becoming unintelligible because of the sound of the drums drowning them out, and I wondered what emcees do to deal with that challenge.”

Dr. Ammirante went to, an annotated database of rap lyrics, and using a computer program, examined about 12,000 words in 125 songs. “I looked at whether emcees take advantage of differences in vowel ‘brightness’. Vowels like e in 'beet' and 'i' in ‘bit’ are brighter and will more likely stand out over the sound of the beat. Vowels like u in 'but' and aw in 'bought' are duller and are more likely to get drowned out. When I looked at the words in the database, I found that there was a very nice relationship that the brighter the vowel, the greater the chance of it occurring on the beat” he says.

However, he says rappers may be doing this unconsciously. “One question that the study doesn’t address is whether rappers are doing this on purpose - are they using certain vowels on the beat? I would suggest it’s plausible that the bias towards certain vowels is not a conscious one,” he says. “Maybe without even realizing it, rappers are making choices about words that should fall on the beat that will increase the chances of them being heard.”

A lifelong love of music

Dr. Ammirante has an extensive background in music, and it has been an important part of his life, and academic and professional careers. He completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played classical guitar, and taught music for several years before branching out into psychology, specializing in the psychology of music. “Psychology of music is a rapidly-growing field,” he says. “I came to it from a music background, but I also always had an interest in science, particularly in psychology.”

His interest in the psychology of music was sparked when he read the book, The Origins of Music, edited by Nils L. Wallin, Bjorn Merker, and Steven Brown. “I was introduced to the field was when I discovered the book The Origins of Music – was music something our early ancestors were engaging in, and if so, why? Did it help them to survive? Does it serve an evolutionary function? Or is it just an activity that feels good for us to do?” he says. “I started asking some basic questions, like why do people do this? Why is music so important to people, and why does it sound the way that it does?”

After working as a research assistant at a lab in Toronto – a hub for psychology of music research – he moved to Australia to pursue a PhD in Psychology, which he completed in 2011.

As a thesis instructor at UofGH, Dr. Ammirante works one-on-one with students on their theses, and advises them through the process. He is currently working on another research study through UofGH’s Research Grant Fund, which he hopes to publish later this year. “That study focuses on melodic expectancy – the listener’s expectations for what will come next – I’m interested in whether our expectation for what the next note will be is constrained by what we can sing. The common thread with the hip-hop study is an interest in how thinking about music – whether as a listener or a performer – is shaped by an awareness of what our voices can and can’t do.”