Non Sequitur Fridays

The Ma Project

In every episode of The Golden Girls, Dorothy (Bea Arthur) says "Ma" at least once. I captured and analyzed 170 of those "Ma"s across all seven seasons. For your viewing pleasure:


I've always been interested in the melodies of human language. Being a Golden Girls fan, I also wanted to understand a little more about Bea Arthur's amazing power of expression.

Pulling out 170 "Ma"s (by no means all the "Ma"s) from throughout the series, and editing them into a single timeline, I transcribed each one using standard musical notation. This involved scrubbing each clip, frame by frame, and cross-referencing with a piano.

The challenging part was that most of the "Ma"s contained more than one pitch (or note), in many cases, several pitches. As this was my first exploration of pitch and human expression, I kept it limited. For each "Ma," I selected one pitch—usually a starting pitch, an ending pitch, or one that Dorothy stays on for a few frames. Here's a sample of the notation:

Her most used pitch:

This Bb is her bellow—Bea's classic belt that cuts through walls. Bea often uses this pitch in disapproval; for example, when Ma is a little too done up for her date with Tony Delveccio:


She also uses the same Bb in exasperation, like when she's not in the mood for another "Picture it… Sicily" story:


Her highest pitch:

Bea goes all the way up to Db in this scene where Dorothy is terrified that Ma's been eaten by a killer dog:


Her lowest pitch:

Bea uses the dark depths of her range to convey Dorothy's total disgust and disappointment at hearing Ma has been listening at the door:


Takeaways from this project

  • In many instances, a single-syllable word can span multiple pitches, depending on its context. Do actors we think of as "expressive" tend to use more melismatic speech patterns?

  • Bea Arthur has an almost 3-octave speaking (and screaming) range, and that's only judging from these few samples. How does her singing range compare? And then there's Maude...

  • Bea Arthur is incredible. Wait, we already knew that.

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