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Phonetics and Spectrograms: Putting Sounds on Paper

Spectrograms make speech visible and are one of the most popular displays used by phoneticians, speech scientists, clinicians, and dialectologists. A spectrogram is a readout that shows frequency on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal axis, and amplitude (amount of sound energy) as either darkness or coloration. See the following figure.

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Here are some key terms to remember (you can refer to the following figure for where some of these terms appear on the spectrogram):

  • Bandwidth: Original method used to track formants on a spectrogram. Now usually replaced by a fast fourier transform (FFT) and linear predictive coding (LPC).

  • Burst: Acoustic event caused by the sudden release of airflow from a stop consonant. Looks like a thin vertical spike on a spectrogram.

  • Frication: Turbulent airflow marking the presence of fricatives (such as /s/ and /ʃ/) or affricates (such as /ʧ/ and /ʤ/). Shows up on spectrogram as darkness spread across a wide frequency section.

  • Formant frequencies: Important acoustic cues for vowel quality resulting from vocal tract resonance. They show up on the spectrogram as dark bands running roughly horizontal with the bottom of the page.

  • Formant frequency transition: Region of rapid formant movement or change important for identifying consonants, particularly stops and affricates.

  • Locus: Frequency regions that help identify place of articulation in stop consonants. For example, second formant frequency (F2) transitions starting at relatively low frequencies (and then rising) are likely bilabial.

  • Stop gap: A silent region on a spectrogram (which shows up as blank) that helps distinguish the presence of a stop consonant.

  • Voice bar: Dark band running parallel to the very bottom of the spectrogram indicating energy associated with voicing.

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