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The Seductive Sway of Sound: Why Your Patter Matters

Want an easy way to sweeten what you say? Produce a parade of similar sounds.

Key points

  • Though often unaware of their preference, people favor a message delivered with a cascade of recurring sounds.
  • We learn as infants to pay more attention to a series of consonants coming in a pleasing progression.
  • When you write or speak with recurring sounds, you engage people faster and easier and promote better recall.
Marife.altabano CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED
Source: Marife.altabano CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

A “Super Sundae” listed on the menu for $6.00. A “Mega Sundae” listed for $5.99. Both are advertised as having three scoops of ice cream and four toppings. Which one sells more?

The more costly one, the “Super Sundae.” It sells roughly twice as much, albeit being identical to the “Mega.”

That’s what happened during a field trial when researchers offered each one (but not the other) on separate Saturdays. The “super” made up 6.3 percent of sales when featured; the “mega,” 3.5 percent.

Researchers Derick Davis at the University of Miami and others arranged this trial to shed light on a simple retailing question: Does a recurring sound—a recurring “s” in this case—spark a change in customer judgment and behavior?[i]

Yes, it does, handily. In another trial, “Four Flavors $4.00” outsold “Four Scoops $3.99.” Notice the series of “f” sounds. They generated nearly 31 percent of sales, the gaggle of different sounds, just 24 percent.

“You Scream, I Scream…”

Davis and his co-authors concluded that the patter of similar sounds, the alliteration, made the difference. The recurring sound ”facilitates message processing,” they write, “which in turn results in more positive judgments and deal evaluations.” That allows the “f-f-f to bury the “f-s-th.”

Researchers in psychology and linguistics have long expressed wonder at such outsize influence by mere sounds. How can such tiny tunings matter? What gives recurring “phonemes”—at the start, middle, or end of neighboring words—such favor?

Evidence from laboratory experiments gives some hints. Researchers Rachel Hayes and Alan Slater at the University of Exeter in the U.K. exposed three-month-old children to lists of alliterative sounds. The children listened longer to lists with recurring consonants (e.g., “but bom bag ben…”) than with non-alliterative ones (e.g., “wad yis jon gug…”).[ii]

Hayes and Slater concluded that the attention-grabbing effect stems at least partly from our learning words as infants based on the first syllable.

Authors Alliterate

For adults, does the effect of alliteration continue to have this kind of grip? And if so, how strong? To get a sense for yourself, read a few snippets from noted authors and see what you think. Do you get hooked more on language with recurring consonants?

Here’s Ambrose Bierce, who wrote about the Civil War: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.”[iii]

W. Somerset Maugham wrote of a pair of women visiting China: “Her hair was bobbed and blonde, and she was boldly painted….[and the other woman by comparison was] passée, provincial, and portly.”[iv]

E. B. White wrote of his childhood: “I waked from a bad dream to find moonlight…falling across my face like the flashlight of a prowler.”[v]

Ciara Egan and a team at Bangor University in the UK wanted to measure just how striking the impact from such sound recurrence is. They asked people to read lists of alliterative and non-alliterative adjectives plus nouns. They meanwhile monitored each reader’s brain waves with an EEG and their pupil dilation with an eye tracker.[vi]

The EEG measure used gauged the difficulty of processing language after the onset of a word. The pupil-dilation measure reflected the engagement of readers’ attention for two seconds. Both measures are time-tested for gauging the impact of language.[vii]

Egan and team found that when noun-adjective pairs were alliterative (e.g., “dazzling diamond”), the relevant EEG wave was less disrupted than otherwise. That meant that the processing of the pair was easier. Pupil dilation was more marked. That meant engagement was greater. They could conclude that alliteration—the recurrence of the initial “d” in this case—delivered more mental arousal and attention.

Pretty Powerful Priming

Egan and her team discovered something else. They asked people to read nonsense noun-adjective pairs and then rate them for their sense. "Non-congruent” alliterative words like “dangerous diamond” got better ratings than, say, “creepy diamond.” The alliterative sound alone gave the illusion of processing fluency, even though both adjective-noun pairings were illogical (confirmed neurologically by EEG readings).

Researchers believe this mind-bending influence comes partly from priming. Once primed with an early stimulus—a sound or anything else—we all respond faster and with less effort to a later one that’s similar. (See my earlier post on sentence patterns.)

This points to a way to immediately increase your impact when you’re drafting something for readers or listeners. Choose words with the synchrony of sound in mind. A cascade of similarity will give your audience a cognitive free ride—and everyone likes getting your meaning without working.

That probably also explains the work led by Francisco Villarroel Ordenes at the University of Massachusetts. His team used machine learning to classify 40,000 social-media posts according to their level of alliteration. Posts with alliteration, they found, got shared more than those without. That was true whether the posts were aimed at arousing emotions or spurring action. An exception: when posts were aimed merely to provide information.[viii]

Besides prompting sharing, making your wording alliterative can help to engage people in other ways. For one thing, people may well better remember what you say.[ix] That’s especially true with poetic language. Recall Bob Marley’s words: “Love the life you live. Live the life you love.

The reverberation of sound, as it turns out, is not only memorable. It also slows readers to more thoroughly process your meaning.[x] Did you just notice?

Beautiful Benefits

You’re probably thinking, of course, that a recurring sound also sounds better. A cadre of scientists today are trying to measure the “beauty” that people perceive as they experience alliteration.[xi] That research remains a work in progress, however.

We do know from daily life that words of wisdom, when recast with an alliterative beat, win more praise. Aesthetics do matter. Take this plainspoken truism: “The best kind of friend is one who sticks with you.” No arguing with that, alliteration or not. But compare it to the phrasing of a popular Depression-era news personality, Walter Winchell: “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.”[xii]

“The power of sound,” as Joseph Conrad, the novelist, said, “has always been greater than the power of sense.”[xiii]

That power extends to many kinds of sound repetition, far beyond the recurrence of initial consonants like the "w" used by Winchell. Here’s Hermann Hesse writing in Siddhartha: “Dreams and restless thoughts came into his mind, flowing from the water of the river, sparkling from the stars of the night, melting from the beams of the sun…”[xiv]

The trailing “ing” does sound good, doesn’t it? So do repetitive sounds of many other kinds. The question is, why not more often cut to the front of the line in getting people’s attention by using sound recurrence? If persuasiveness matters to you, consider it not optional but essential.

If a mere recurrent “s” or “f” can sell more ice cream, why not use it to succeed in other ways—say, winning over a bigger audience for what you have to say. You just might woo them into walking up to you instead of walking out.


[i] Derick F Davis, Rajesh Bagchi, and Lauren G Block, "Alliteration Alters: Phonetic Overlap in Promotional Messages Influences Evaluations and Choice," Journal of Retailing 92, no. 1 (2016).

[ii] Rachel A Hayes and Alan Slater, "Three-Month-Olds’ Detection of Alliteration in Syllables," Infant Behavior and Development 31, no. 1 (2008).

[iii] Ambrose Bierce, “What I Saw at Shiloh,” 1881.

[iv] W. Somerset Maugham, On a Chinese Screen (London: William Heinemann, 1922).

[v] E.B. White, One Man’s Meat (New York: Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House, 1938), 47.

[vi] Ciara Egan et al., "How Alliteration Enhances Conceptual–Attentional Interactions in Reading," Cortex 124 (2020).

[vii] For example, see Alice Hodapp and Milena Rabovsky, "The N400 ERP Component Reflects a Learning Signal During Language Comprehension," bioRxiv (2021). See also introduction in Keiyu Niikuni et al., "Pupil Dilation Reflects Emotional Arousal Via Poetic Language," Perceptual and Motor Skills (2022). Note that the EEG’s “N400” event-related potential, or ERP, reflects the difficulty of processing language in the 300- to 500-millisecond window after word onset.

[viii] Francisco Villarroel Ordenes et al., "Cutting through Content Clutter: How Speech and Image Acts Drive Consumer Sharing of Social Media Brand Messages," Journal of Consumer Research 45, no. 5 (2019).

[ix] R Brooke Lea et al., "Sweet Silent Thought: Alliteration and Resonance in Poetry Comprehension," Psychological Science 19, no. 7 (2008).

[x] David S Miall and Don Kuiken, "Foregrounding, Defamiliarization, and Affect: Response to Literary Stories," Poetics 22, no. 5 (1994).

[xi] Stefan Blohm et al., "Sound Shape and Sound Effects of Literary Texts," Handbook of Empirical Literary Studies (2021).

[xii] Wikiquote:

[xiii] Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (1912), preface. See

[xiv] Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (New York: New Directions, 1951.

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