Master the Sound of Writing: The Bouba/Kiki Effect

Credit: Shaylor,

I learned one of the most valuable writing lessons ever when I was studying at the Mannes College of Music in New York. There, I took a sightsinging class from classical guitarist and conductor Scott Jackson Wiley.

Sightsinging, in case you were wondering, is an ancient form of sonic torture used to break the souls of young musicians before they land their first solo concerto gig. Just kidding; it’s a class in which you sing the notes of a song you have never heard just by looking at the sheet music. You had to do it on pitch and without any kind of tonal backup, like a piano.

We also did the reverse, and learned to score, or write down, songs based on hearing the notes alone, without even so much as a key signature to guide us.

(I’m only half kidding about that ancient torture thing.)

We also learned how to identify chords based on their feel. Major chords sounded upbeat and traditional. Minor chords were still traditional, yet melancholy. Diminished chords went from merely sad to major depressive disorder. And augmented chords were a manic, out-of-control twist on major chords, like a circus clown with a drinking problem.

“Hear with your eyes and see with your ears,” Scott would say.

Writing and the Bouba/Kiki Effect
Do humans naturally “see” with their ears? It seems like there’s strong evidence that the way words sound to the human ear produces visual correlations that cut across age, language and cultural divides, even in cases that don’t specifically fit the definition of onomatopoeia (words coined to sound like the thing they describe, such as fizz, or pop). The Bouba/Kiki experiment, a variation of which was first performed in 1929 by German-American psychoanalyst Wolfgang Köhler, and then repeated by  Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard in 2001, ask respondents of various ages, languages and backgrounds to the shape (shown below) that best corresponds to the names “Kiki” and “Bouba.” The results have been remarkably consistent—respondents chose “Kiki” for the jagged shape and “Bouba” for the rounded shape about 96% of the time. More recent research shows that this effect may even hold true for preverbal children as young as 30 months old.


This consistent pattern reinforcement suggests that an underlying sound aesthetic is at work in language, and humans tend to prefer certain sounds to mean certain things. If one does not follow these unspoken rules, their writing runs the risk of discord. On a practical level, words that don’t work for the ear are labeled, as one critic put it, “strictly third-class writing.”

When we read, the sounds the words make in our minds affect how we visualize what the author wants us to know. And different authors can command the language in different, though equally melodious ways. To develop a unique writing voice, try these few tricks to listen with a writer’s ear.

How to Develop a Writing Ear
We could all use a refresher on this from time to time. Here are a few suggestions for tuning your writing ear, if it’s been a while or things are starting to sound a little off.

1. Reread your favorite authors and remember why you think they’re great. The Houston Chronicle once said of my favorite writer, “Reading Pat Conroy is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.” I first found a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides at age eleven, and soon after I began devouring all of his other novels. His writing is beautiful, ornate and sometimes showy, and his vocabulary vast yet precise. When I read those books, they remind me why I decided to write in the first place.

2. Listen to some really good classical music. If classical makes your hair stand on end, listen to something that you find challenging. Even if it’s something you don’t necessarily like, take some time (driving in your car, earbuds while you’re in line at the DMV, whatever) and really try and visualize the shape of the melodies, the different instruments and voices (if you choose a piece by more than one musician) and all the thought the composer put in to where each note goes. Try to see with your ears when you listen. For deliberate note placement that’s easy to follow, try Mozart, Stravinsky or Liszt. Once you’ve disappeared into a concerto or two, go write while you’re still in that mindset.

3. Write out loud. Speak the words as you type or scribble them, and be ruthless about editing when you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right. Bonus: This method is also really helpful when you’re having a slow writing day—hearing your words out loud can give you some confidence and help you pick up speed.

4. Ask someone else to read your work back to you. If you’re just stuck, but you don’t know precisely why, hearing the words in another’s voice might help you pinpoint what needs editing.

What other methods do you have for tuning your writing ear? Do you agree that writers should learn to hear with their eyes and see with their ears?