101 Black Women Poets in Mainly White and Mainly Black Rooms
After the murder of George Floyd and four years of the Trump administration, amid the ongoing pandemic and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a joy to watch a young, talented, charming Black woman take the national stage and express hope for the future.
But Gorman did more than that. Though white America did not quite recognize it as such, Gorman also provided a stirring introduction to spoken word performance, at an event marked by pomp and, too often, rhetorical tedium. Her recital featured the expressive intonation, cadences, and hand gestures typical of spoken word, and unlike most academically sponsored contemporary American poetry, “The Hill We Climb” features intricate rhyme. Gorman engaged larger audiences often indifferent to poetry: by the end of Inauguration Day, her yet-to-be-published book was a bestseller. In September 2021, she became Estée Lauder’s first Global Changemaker, a role in which she plans to promote literacy among women and girls. Gorman’s recital was a challenge to US literary culture, as if to say: A poetry “reading,” even on a solemn occasion, need not be dull.
White scholar and poet Lesley Wheeler concluded, in her 2008 book Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present, that a “neutral delivery” dominates contemporary academic poetry performance. In 2015, white poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young observed that “at most of the [literary] readings we attend, the room is mainly white […] even when the readers do not identify as white […] even when the readings happen in urban areas with an other-than-white majority.” Spahr and Young also demonstrated that “the sociality of US contemporary literary production skew[s] […] white and […] male.” As of 2015, the majority of prestigious literary prizes, publishing opportunities, and academic positions went to white males, despite the fact that the typical MFA student is female.
In mainly white rooms — and a presidential inauguration is one, despite being outdoors — white norms of literary performance dominate. And these norms developed in academic and elite literary circles, among influential white male authors. But what are white or nonwhite styles of literary reading or performance? What is a “neutral delivery”?
“Poet Voice,” or monotonous incantation, is one style that arose in mainly white rooms. Two poets commonly associated with Poet Voice are 2020 Nobel Laureate Louise Glück, who is white, and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, who is African American. Both arguably influenced or reflected normative poetry reading styles as US poet laureate (Glück in 2003–04, Trethewey in 2012–14). What audiences hear as Poet Voice tends to exhibit one or more of these prosodic features: a slow speaking rate or tempo, a repetitive rhythm, a repeated intonation pattern, and a narrow pitch range.
In linguistics, prosody refers to acoustic qualities of speech, such as pitch, intonation, volume, timing, rhythm, and tempo or speaking rate. These qualities strongly influence a listener’s interpretation of speech. Consider how a bored, flat tone contradicts the statement, I’m so excited! Poets have long been interested in intonation patterns (the rise and fall or steadiness of the pitch), as well as tempo, rhythm, and speech stress, often marked by both higher volume and higher pitch, as in “Hel-LO.” The poetics of Robert Frost, for example, hinge on “tone of meaning […] without the words” (“Never Again Would Bird’s Song Be the Same”).
When we listen to a poetry recording, political speech, radio podcast, sermon, lecture, dramatic monologue, etc., we constantly — often unconsciously — assess how well the speaker’s voice keeps our attention, matches our expectations of how the speaker should sound, and relates to the meaning of the words. Different performance venues, audiences, and genres give rise to distinct performance styles, such as Poet Voice and the spoken word style, which often inspire visceral responses among fans, critics, and students of poetry.
In fact, the strong responses of our students to different poetry performance styles helped inspire our large-scale study of 203 recordings by 101 Black women poets.  At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Howard Rambsy II has taught an African American literature course to first-year Black women students every year since 2008, and at California State University, Bakersfield, Marit MacArthur taught poetry and creative writing for more than a decade.
The vocal dynamism celebrated among Black people from working-class backgrounds is underappreciated, when recognized at all, in conventional literature courses and academic spaces. Many Black students arrive in college with considerable knowledge of the drama of Black church services, the verbal dexterity of rap music and R&B, the diverse skills exhibited in Black talent shows, and the entertaining qualities of Black speech in standup comedy routines, barbershops, and hair salons. In view of vocal performance in those realms, the subdued performance style of academic poetry readings seems “boring,” to use the students’ favorite term. At Southern Illinois, Black women students quite vocally favor the dynamic reading styles of Sonia Sanchez and, in recent years, Mahogany L. Browne and Jae Nichelle, over prominent, award-winning poets such as Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Claudia Rankine. At CSU Bakersfield, many first-generation students (Latinx, white, and Black), also preferred more expressive poetry performance styles, including spoken word.
In US literary culture, the distinct nature and frequent political content of spoken word exist in tension with the work of academically affiliated poets, who need not display dynamic performance styles to publish and become MFA faculty. Yet spoken word artists typically must earn prestigious degrees (Gorman is a 2020 Harvard graduate), publish books, and preferably win major awards, in order to overcome a seeming prejudice against their performance styles and sometimes their subject matter, before becoming creative writing professors. When the spoken word poet Tyehimba Jess (who studied at the University of Chicago and earned a MFA from New York University) received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Olio, the Pulitzer committee, clumsily applying the term “performance art,” implied that his poetic achievement somehow transcends his performance style: “For a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.” And according to Tracy K. Smith in 2018 — 22nd US poet laureate and the fourth Black woman poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize — poets studying creative writing in the mid-1990s were told to “avoid composing political poems.”
Such prejudices against political content and dynamic performance styles are being challenged, amid wider acknowledgement of systemic racism and attempts to redress it. In 2022, Jess wrote the foreword for Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School, an anthology of frequently political poems created by members of the Oak Park River Forest High School Spoken Word Club. Just as Gorman’s inaugural recital inspired the American public, the club excited students when other approaches to literary study did not.
Spoken word poetry has long offered forceful political critique. In the 2012 Women of the World Poetry Slam competition, poet Dominique Christina prophesied retribution for dictators and slaveowners in “Karma,” reciting: “If I could write this shit in fire, I would write this shit in fire.” In 2017, on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, she recited her poem “Mothers of Murdered Sons” at the National Poetry Slam Finals. Some of Gorman’s earlier work, especially her 2014 performance of “Neighborhood Anthem” as the first Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, sounds overtly political, addressing educational inequity and a charter public school in Watts where her single mother taught, while Gorman herself attended a private school in Santa Monica. “The Hill We Climb,” an occasional poem intended to uplift the nation, resembles other inaugural poems in content and tone, but not in form and delivery.
Just how much do spoken word poets differ in their performance styles from academically affiliated poets? How much do performance styles among contemporary Black women poets vary? Does Amanda Gorman perform differently in mainly white rooms compared to mainly Black rooms? How do a variety of Black women poets perform in mainly white rooms versus non–white-majority rooms — such as the nonacademic venues that most often host spoken word poets? How might the norms of mainly white rooms influence the performance, publication, and reception of Black women poets?
These are some of the questions we explored in our study. Above all, we wanted to think seriously about the rich variety among contemporary Black women poets. We included poets who have published at least one book, from a range of styles, academic backgrounds, regions, and recording venues — slam competitions, academic venues, poetry festivals, public spaces like galleries and bookstores, public radio, and television studios. We included prize-winning poets and poets whose recordings have amassed tens of thousands of views online. Of the 101 poets, 36 are categorized as spoken word, or proto–spoken word (Maya Angelou, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez, Nikky Finney, June Jordan, Pat Parker, and Sonia Sanchez). These elder poets, who often share a theater background and/or participated in the Black Arts Movement, developed styles in participatory settings with mainly Black audiences and influenced younger generations. Of the 75 recordings by spoken word poets, 42 are from participatory settings, while of the 128 recordings by non–spoken word poets, only two are from participatory settings (Nikki Giovanni at Def Poetry Jam and Francine J. Harris at Button Poetry/Organic Weapon Arts showcase at AWP). A full list of the poets, with links to the recordings, is provided here.
To answer our questions about the variety of performance styles among 101 Black women poets, we took two different approaches to the 203 recordings, distant listening and slow listening. Empirical analysis of speech as performance is quite novel, so some explanation is in order.
Distant listening involves computational analysis of large audio archives using supervised machine learning, to discover patterns at a scale that an individual human listener could not. For instance, we might say that one poet sounds more expressive than another, but what do we mean by “expressive,” and how can we test our impressions of an “expressive” style among many recordings by different poets? We analyzed the 203 recordings using Voxit, an open-source toolkit developed by two of us (Miller and MacArthur) to analyze and quantify sonic patterns in recorded speech. (We also applied very high standards for statistical significance, and encourage readers to find out more about our methods here.)
Specifically, we considered four measurable aspects of speech: average pitch, pitch speed, length of pauses between words, and intensity speed. Pitch is typically measured in hertz (Hz), or cycles per second — for the human voice, the number of times the vocal cords vibrate per second. Pitch speed refers to how quickly a speaker changes her pitch, which we measure in octaves per second; faster changes in pitch tend to sound more expressive. Pauses between words are measured in seconds and milliseconds. Lastly, intensity speed measures how rapidly a speaker modulates her volume. An even utterance “hel-lo” would have slow intensity speed, while a sudden stress on the end, “hel-LO,” would have a fast intensity speed as well as a shift to a higher pitch.
Our study confirmed that measurable differences exist between the performance styles of spoken word and academically affiliated poetry in US literary culture. Among the 203 recordings, spoken word poets use a higher average pitch than non–spoken word poets by 32 Hz, and recordings from participatory venues, like slam competitions, also exhibited a higher pitch, by about 42 Hz, compared to academic contexts. For instance, in a recording from Page Meets Stage in 2014 and a recording from the PBS NewsHour in 2017, Tracy K. Smith’s average pitch was 151 and 154 Hz, respectively. Gorman’s average pitch was 204 Hz at the inauguration, and 263 Hz at the participatory venue of Urban Word LA in 2014.
Spoken word poets also tended to make faster changes in pitch, more typical of expressive intonation. On average, spoken word recordings had a faster pitch speed by 0.24 octaves per second than non–spoken word recordings. At the inauguration, Gorman’s pitch speed was 1.37 octaves per second, while Smith’s was 0.7 octaves per second at Page Meets Stage. Spoken word poets and recordings from participatory venues both exhibited slightly shorter pauses between words, compared to non–spoken word poets and academic venues, by 70 milliseconds (close to a 10th of a second). Gorman’s average pause length at Urban Word LA was 0.24 seconds, while Smith’s at Page Meets Sage was 0.44 seconds. (Though an average difference in pause length of 70 milliseconds may seem small, the human auditory system is exquisitely sensitive to time; we can detect pauses only a few milliseconds long. Multiple pauses also influence the overall tempo of speech.)
Recordings from participatory venues also tended to have faster shifts in volume, by about 28 decibels per second (the statistical significance of this last finding was not as high as for the other results). Some might ascribe these patterns to the Lombard effect, which suggests that the setting of a relatively noisy space may cause a performer to change their pitch, timing, and other prosodic patterns, which can improve listener comprehension. Participatory settings can be quite large, like the theaters that host some slam competitions. But audiences in participatory settings do not talk over spoken word poets; they shout affirmations, laugh out loud, and applaud during the performance of the poem, and during brief pauses the speaker sometimes makes to allow for audible response, as in standup comedy.
The spoken word style, developed by poets of various ethnic backgrounds, arose in mainly Black venues. Even when audiences are mixed, these venues follow participatory norms developed in Black venues like the Black church and in Black music and performance, with call-and-response, applause, and vocal encouragement from the audience. Shorter pauses may relate to venue and audience as well. The outspoken, energetic crowds in participatory settings may inspire poets to speak more quickly than those in academic venues. And in spoken word venues, poets often recite in a competition, with time limits. Conversely, many academic readings provide an individual poet with extended time to present their poems, reading from books. In academic venues, audiences are relatively quiet, often withholding applause until a reading ends. We might actually expect spoken word poets to pause longer to allow for the audience to interject. Thus, both the timed nature of the performance, and audience and venue characteristics, may influence the length of pauses and the speed at which poets recite or read their poems.
While we found clear differences in performance styles between spoken word and non–spoken word poets, and between academic and participatory venues, we emphasize that other information we gathered about poets’ biographical background and about the recordings — such as region of upbringing; educational background (whether poets attended public or private universities, graduate school or not, Ivy League universities or not, HBCUs or not); and whether the recording was made live, in a studio, or self-recorded — did not correlate significantly with any performance patterns. This could be due to sample size and the limited nature of our analysis — considering just four measures of pitch, timing, and volume patterns in a few recordings from a poet’s entire career. And some poets showed more variation from one performance to another.
However, the irrelevance of other background factors also suggests that performance trends among Black women poets transcend regionalism, and precede and survive the experience of higher education. In our study, a poet’s choice of performance style correlates with the type of audience and venue — academic or participatory, mainly white or mainly Black — and the poetic tradition a poet comes up in — spoken word, with its origins in non-white performance styles and spaces, or an academic lineage, in mainly white rooms.
Next, we want to highlight just two poem recordings in more detail — Jae Nichelle’s “Friends with Benefits” and Mahogany L. Browne’s “Black Girl Magic” — using our second approach, slow listening.  Like distant listening, slow listening helps us move beyond the potential biases of impressionistic listening, in part because sound does not hold still for examination. Slow listening involves:
1) repeated listening, with traditional close reading of the text;
2) scrutiny of our listening habits, assumptions, biases, and expectations, often based on the author’s apparent identity;
3) sound visualization, specifically pitch contours, which simply show intonation patterns, or the rise and fall or steadiness of pitch, over time; and
4) quantification of sonic patterns, such as pitch, timing, and intensity.
One is always “hearing one’s voice through the ears of others,” as musicologist Nina Eidsheim, in her 2019 book The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music, paraphrases James Baldwin. We also listen to others this way, filtering how they sound to us through our expectations of how they should sound, based on what we think we know about them. There is no such thing as a natural voice, or ear, unaffected by cultural training. We can, however, acknowledge the role of culture in cocreating our voices and listening habits, and the ways we speak and hear in different contexts. With slow listening, we offer an analogy to the practice among musicians of slowing down a musical recording — say, a bebop piano or saxophone solo with a challenging technique performed quickly — to understand it in order to imitate it, often by transcribing it. (Thanks to Alexander Ullman for sharing the term for this practice: slowdown[ing].)
Since 2018, the poem “Friends with Benefits” by Jae Nichelle has been the most popular among a few dozen poems covered every fall in Rambsy’s introductory literature course at Southern Illinois. A recording from the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival, uploaded to YouTube on October 31, 2017, has accumulated over one million views. (A close second, in terms of class popularity, is a recording of “Angry Black Woman” by Porsha Olayiwola, also viewed more than one million times on YouTube.) Originally from Louisiana, Nichelle attended Tulane University. Thanks to the attention she gained for her outstanding performances, she published her first chapbook The Porch (As Sanctuary) with YesYes Books in 2019; she also independently published She Healed: A Collection of Spoken Word Poems that same year. In “Friends with Benefits,” Nichelle personifies anxiety as her problematic “friend” and narrates her painful, sometimes humorous struggles, with a confessional-style delivery. Her discussion of her mental health deeply moves students. Nichelle recites her poem from memory with hand gestures, and the audience regularly expresses loud, raucous support.
YouTube now constitutes a remarkable public audiovisual archive of Black women poets not represented as well in mainstream and elite literary print outlets. Historically, anthologies, literary magazines, and volumes of poetry were the most prominent mediums for disseminating poetry. Nichelle’s poem recording is hosted by the YouTube channel Write About Now, a media company that features poetry. Since 2014, the Write About Now channel has uploaded more than 1,900 videos of poets reciting their works to enthusiastic audiences who sometimes shout affirmations. If presses like Graywolf, Norton, Four Way Books, and others matter most to print-based poetry, then popular YouTube channels like Button Poetry, The Strivers Row, and Write About Now matter most for the broader distribution of works by spoken word artists.
The stakes for performing poems in slam competitions are higher than for readings at bookstores or on campuses of mainly white universities. Each poet at the National Poetry Slam Finals is competing with other poets who will perform on the same stage and receive ratings from a common panel of judges. Thanks to YouTube, winning at the competition is not the only means of success and visibility; the subsequent popularity of the videos on YouTube represents further acclaim.
In Nichelle’s performance — recorded in what we might call a mainly Black room — the poet reads in a recognizable spoken word style, which she also makes her own, as she explains in a 2020 interview. She recites with expressive pitch — her pitch speed averages 1.43 octaves per second, changing rapidly for emphasis — and at a fairly high pitch, averaging 287 Hz, often using a narrow pitch range for an extended time. This is evident in the pitch contour below, from ~1:25 to 1:29 of the recording, when a narrow pitch range does not mean monotone, as we can hear, but rather a steady and narrowly high-pitched note of anxiety.  We encourage readers to read the text in the pitch contours like a quotation, but with attention to how the poet’s intonation might influence the listener’s interpretation of the words:
Nichelle also recites at a fast pace, though she begins and ends the poem at a slower tempo, speeding up when the mood of the poem intensifies. All of these prosodic choices arguably mimic the onset of an anxiety attack, the constricted feeling, the ebbing of anxiety through attention to breath, and the apprehension, even in calm, that anxiety will return. In the pitch contours below (from ~1:36 to 1:40 and ~1:39 to 1:43 in the recording), her pitch sometimes nears 360 Hz, as she relates her most intense moments of anxiety:
As she calms and slows down, her pitch also falls a little lower, as is evident in these pitch contours from ~1:45 to 1:49 and ~1:48 to 1:51, with a long pause (indicated in light gray for silence) before “she”:
As Nichelle describes the struggle of bearing the weight of her anxiety, as shown in the pitch contours below from ~1:51 to 1:54 and ~1:53 to 1:56, her pitch rises again, and her pace speeds up:
What’s so affecting about Nichelle’s skillful performance is her simultaneous enactment and analysis of vulnerability, and her display of strength in facing down her personified “friend,” Anxiety, to perform the poem. Her distinctive intonation patterns in performing the poem enrich its meaning for the listener.
Poet Mahogany L. Browne is an important figure for spoken word poetry in New York. “Black Girl Magic” was recorded in 2015 for PBS NewsHour, which reaches a larger and likely whiter, yet not academic, audience than the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival where Nichelle recited “Friends with Benefits.” Co-founder of Brooklyn Slam, Browne holds an MFA from the Pratt Institute and is “the founder and publisher of Penmanship Books, which she created ‘as the answer to the performance poet’s publishing problem.’” According to her bio on Poets.org, “She is the Executive Director of Bowery Poetry Club, Artistic Director of Urban Word NYC, and Poetry Coordinator at St. Francis College.” She also published Black Girl Magic in 2018 with Roaring Brook Press.
An incantatory 49-line poem, “Black Girl Magic” aptly relies in its structure on anaphora, or beginning a number of lines in sequence with a repeated word or phrase. The repeated intonation patterns of Browne’s performance reinforce the anaphora. She addresses the Black girl listener as “you” and reiterates a spell of racist and sexist oppression, followed by a spell of liberation and empowerment. After the opening line — “They say you ain’t posed to be here” — the speaker tells the addressee all the things “you ain’t posed” to do, or want, or be (16 lines begin with this phrase), using a repeated cadence with high-pitch emphasis on “ain’t” or “posed.” In two pitch contours from ~0:18 to 0:22 and ~0:21 to 0:25 in the recording, we see how the pauses between “ain’t” and “posed” (in the light gray columns indicating silence) emphasize what “you” are not meant to do:
The first part of the poem feels like a spell cast on Black girls by systemic racism and sexism, by the mainly white “they.” As the phrases accumulate, Browne speeds up her speaking rate, enacting the relentless intensity of these messages, reinforced by the expressive pitch changes; in the poem overall, Browne averages a fast pitch speed of 2.1 octaves per second.
In six lines that open with “And carry,” the speaker shares all the burdens “you” are expected to “carry,” in a falling cadence that conveys the deadening repetition of thankless work, as we see in this pitch contour from ~0:27 to 0:31:
The long pause of almost two seconds between “And carry a nation —” and “but never an opinion” emphasizes the weight of those burdens and the lack of compensating respect or power, in this pitch contour from ~0:35 to 0:39:
In counterpoint to this litany of what “you ain’t posed” to do and what you are expected to “carry,” Browne namechecks Black women who resist and exceed these expectations in popular music, culture, politics, and literature, to whom “you” are unfavorably compared: “Nina Beyoncé Tina Cecily Shonda Rhimes,” “Until you look more medusa than Viola Davis / Until you sound more Shenaynay than Kerry Washington / Until you more side eye than Michelle Obama on a Tuesday.”
The poem then shifts to casting a spell of liberation and empowerment, building “you” up, emphasizing what a powerful, beautiful girl “you” are becoming, against all expectations. The lines exert double meanings as praise and imperatives — e.g., “You Black girl shine.” Browne pauses between “you” and “Black” in each line, to emphasize the direct address — it is “you” who embody and enact all these positive qualities “they” say you cannot. The repetitive cadence at roughly the same pitch of these “You Black girl” phrases create a counterspell to the opening “You ain’t posed” phrases, as shown in this pitch contour from ~1:43 to 1:48:
Browne’s pacing and intonation patterns are all thoughtful performance choices, integrally connected to the message and changing tone of her poem. This is evident in the contrast between her pitch and intonation, in introducing herself at the poem’s end, and her voice in performing the poem. In closing, after Browne has finished reciting the poem, the average pitch is noticeably lower, at 194 Hz, than her average of 233 Hz when she is reciting the poem, from ~1:58 to 2:00:
The following condensed pitch contour of the entire poem reflects the emotional arc of the performance, from the painful litany of what you “ain’t posed to” do, to the uplifting imperatives about what you can and should do, in the pattern of repetitive cadences, and in phases of lower or higher pitch.
The appeal of both “Friends with Benefits” and “Black Girl Magic” — to a young Black woman in college, to anyone who can empathize with her, to anyone who has ever battled anxiety and low, narrow, bigoted expectations — should be clear. But unless you follow spoken word poetry live and online, you probably have not encountered these poems before.
The enthusiastic reception of Amanda Gorman has not ended the widespread exclusion of spoken word poets and performance from academic settings, high-profile publications, and literary prizes, but it is a step in the right direction. Until now, most of the spoken word poets we include in this study have rarely, if ever, been the subject of scholarly articles. And by and large, anthologists have avoided reprinting poems by spoken word poets, many of whom address political subjects and lack affiliation with and access to the academy and publishing industry.
Charles Rowell’s Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013) and Kevin Young’s African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song (2020) collectively include hundreds of contributors. Relatively few spoken word poets who first established themselves in the 21st century are included, however. (Consider that Kevin Young, Smith, Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes — i.e., many of the major Black poets who have succeeded in elite academic literary circles — established themselves at this time.) Non–spoken word Black women poets in our study — such as Morgan Parker (b. 1987), Tiana Clark (b. 1984), Allison Rollins (b. 1987), and Safiya Sinclair (b. 1984) — do appear in the Young anthology. They are all generational peers of the younger spoken word artists like Jae Nichelle, Jasmine Mans, Porsha Olayiwola, Sunni Patterson, and Ebony Stewart, whose recorded poems have millions of views on YouTube and who have published books, yet do not appear in anthologies of African American literature. And the division works both ways. Poets who read directly from their books are not widely embraced in spoken word contexts, and dramatic performances of poems on overtly political topics are not prized or encouraged in many academic or MFA settings.
In our era, when creating and sharing poetry recordings is so easy, and when white supremacy and systemic racism are finally being broadly challenged within many US cultural institutions, there is no reason that the division between the page and performance should persist within Black poetry circles or American literary culture at large. Nor should it be the case that a small number of prominent and certainly talented Black women poets, whose performance styles often fit the preferences of mainly white rooms, and who not coincidentally have been embraced by the academic literary elite, receive most of the scholarly and critical attention.
 The full project will be published as a book. Gorman is represented by three recorded poems, rather than two; we added “The Hill We Climb” when she was selected to read at the inauguration.
 Articles on slow listening by MacArthur and Miller are forthcoming in 2022, one in Digital Humanities Quarterly and another in the Cambridge Companion to Literature in the Digital Age, edited by Adam Hammond.
 The horizontal lines corresponding to the scale of pitch values are bunched closer together at higher pitches because we use a logarithmic scale. The reason for this is that pitch increases exponentially; that is, one octave above 100 Hz is 200 Hz, one octave above 200 Hz is 400 Hz, and so on. To present pitch values on a linear scale does not match human perception of relative pitch.
We thank Jane-Ling Wang, distinguished professor of statistics at UC Davis, for her guidance with the statistical methodology used in this project. The pitch contours featured in this article were created in Drift, an open-source pitch tracker, incorporating the open-source forced aligner features of Gentle, which was prototyped in 2016 by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship. Drift was further developed by a NEH Digital Humanities Advancement grant in 2017 and 2018. It is now supported and hosted by SpokenWeb, a seven-year CAD $2.5 million grant project from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Marit J. MacArthur is a lecturer in the University Writing Program and faculty affiliate in the Performance Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis.
Howard Rambsy II, distinguished professor of literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the author of The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011) and Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers (2020).
Xiaoliu Wu is a PhD candidate in statistics at the University of California, Davis.
Qin Ding received her PhD in statistics from the University of California, Davis, in June 2021.
Lee M. Miller is professor of neurobiology and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.
Featured image: Amanda Gorman - Speaking at LOC - 2017 by the Library of Congress.
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