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J Acoust Soc Am. 2014 Feb;135(2):862-73. doi: 10.1121/1.4861245.

On the effectiveness of vocal imitations and verbal descriptions of sounds.

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Dipartimento di Culture del progetto, Università Iuav di Venezia, Dorsoduro 2206, 30123 Venezia, Italy.


Describing unidentified sounds with words is a frustrating task and vocally imitating them is often a convenient way to address the issue. This article reports on a study that compared the effectiveness of vocal imitations and verbalizations to communicate different referent sounds. The stimuli included mechanical and synthesized sounds and were selected on the basis of participants' confidence in identifying the cause of the sounds, ranging from easy-to-identify to unidentifiable sounds. The study used a selection of vocal imitations and verbalizations deemed adequate descriptions of the referent sounds. These descriptions were used in a nine-alternative forced-choice experiment: Participants listened to a description and picked one sound from a list of nine possible referent sounds. Results showed that recognition based on verbalizations was maximally effective when the referent sounds were identifiable. Recognition accuracy with verbalizations dropped when identifiability of the sounds decreased. Conversely, recognition accuracy with vocal imitations did not depend on the identifiability of the referent sounds and was as high as with the best verbalizations. This shows that vocal imitations are an effective means of representing and communicating sounds and suggests that they could be used in a number of applications.


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