Sunday, November 28, 2004

Foundations of Music

This is interesting:
Why is Elgar's music for Land of Hope and Glory so quintessentially English, while Debussy sounds so French? It is all because the music mimics the composer's native language, say scientists.
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They found that English had more of a swing than French, a rhythm produced by a tendency in English to cut some vowels short while stressing others. The melodies of the two languages also differed, with pitch varying far more in spoken English than French.

The team then did the same kind of analysis on music, comparing the rhythm and melody of English classical music from composers such as Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams, with that of French composers including Debussy, Fauré and Roussel. "The music differs in just the same way as the languages," said Dr Patel. "It is as if the music carries an imprint of the composer's language."

I would have expected the answer to be more generally 'cultural' in nature - rather like one can hear the optimism of the sixties in the Beatles (say), whereas today's rock music tends to be a lot darker. Music reflects the cultural climate of the composer. So, I always figured, Pomp and Circumstance sounds British because Brits are, well... pompous. Our music doesn't just reflect our language, it reflects us - our cultural attitudes, values, and so forth. But it is interesting that when comparing national languages and music, they found "just the same" differences. This would seem to suggest that language plays quite a significant role here, at least.

I wonder if it would be possible to isolate language and culture somehow. Perhaps one could compare the music of multi-lingual composers who are nevertheless quite culturally isolated, with that of monolingual yet broadly multicultural (well-travelled and worldly, say) composers. It would probably be difficult to find people who clearly fit these categories, but oh well. I'll just have to wonder: does cultural or linguistic exposure have a greater influence on composers?

But enough rambling. What I really meant to be posting about was an old article I was reminded of, about how the chromatic scale may be based on the frequencies most common to human speech. After much googling, I managed to dig up this. It discusses how music has traditionally been viewed as resting upon a mathematical foundation, but recent research has opened up a new possibility:

[M]usicologists have long emphasized that while each culture stamps a special identity onto its music, music itself has some universal qualities. For example, in virtually all cultures sound is divided into some or all of the 12 intervals that make up the chromatic scale -- that is, the scale represented by the keys on a piano. For centuries, observers have attributed this preference for certain combinations of tones to the mathematical properties of sound itself.
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Schwartz, Howe, and Purves analyzed a vast selection of speech sounds from a variety of languages to reveal the underlying patterns common to all utterances. In order to focus only on the raw sound, they discarded all theories about speech and meaning and sliced sentences into random bites. Using a database of over 100,000 brief segments of speech, they noted which frequency had the greatest emphasis in each sound. The resulting set of frequencies, they discovered, corresponded closely to the chromatic scale. In short, the building blocks of music are to be found in speech.

Far from being abstract, music presents a strange analog to the patterns created by the sounds of speech. "Music, like the visual arts, is rooted in our experience of the natural world," says Schwartz. "It emulates our sound environment in the way that visual arts emulate the visual environment." In music we hear the echo of our basic sound-making instrument -- the vocal tract. The explanation for human music is simpler still than Pythagoras's mathematical equations: We like the sounds that are familiar to us -- specifically, we like sounds that remind us of us.

I found it especially interesting when they discussed the implications of this view, as it relates to musical appreciation in other species:
Marc Hauser and Josh McDermott of Harvard argued in the July issue of Nature Neuroscience that animals don't create or perceive music the way we do. [...] But what's been played to the animals, Schwartz notes, is human music. If animals evolve preferences for sound as we do -- based upon the soundscape in which they live -- then their "music" would be fundamentally different from ours. In the same way our scales derive from human utterances, a cat's idea of a good tune would derive from yowls and meows. To demonstrate that animals don't appreciate sounds the way we do, we'd need evidence that they don't respond to "music" constructed from their own sound environment.

I guess that makes sense. I suspect I wouldn't be very appreciative of a cat-based musical scale either.

10 comments:

  1. I have a (Japanese) friend who decided to learn Chinese. She bought a text, which came with tapes, but every time she played the tapes her cat started yowling and tearing around the apartment, bouncing off the walls. It would go nuts.

    I guess this means that Chinese is either most definitely not cat music, or is very distressing cat music, at least for Japanese cats. Or for that particular Japanese cat. 

    Posted by Mary

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  2. does cultural or linguistic exposure have a greater influence on composers?I think that it is generally impossible or at least impractical to attempt to separate a language from the culture in which it belongs.

    If you’re talking about particular eras, decades etc. then perhaps. But otherwise linguists have also told me that languages are imbued with the culture from which that sprang forth. A reason why culturally dead languages such as Esperanto have never been successful perhaps.


     

    Posted by illusive_mind

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  3. i've read a few articles which correlate birdsong with the general 'human' idea of minor and major keys being 'happy' and 'sad'.

    apparently it could be due to morning birdsong (predominately) being in a major key, while birds at night sing in a minor key. which is quite a nice idea even if it isn't true. 

    Posted by andrew

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  4. Hi Andrew - I didn't know you read my blog! That birdsong thing would be cool, though it sounds suspiciously urban-legendish. (But it shouldn't be difficult to test, one would think.)

    Mary, nice anecdote - this was just plain old Chinese speech that drove the cat crazy? Very odd.

    I_M - you could well be right. But what do you think of the sort of comparisons I suggested in the main post? Would they not provide us with some useful info in this respect? Or do you just think they would be impractical to carry out (much as I conceded in the post)? 

    Posted by Richard

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  5. It was plain old Chinese speech. But remember - Chinese is tonal, and I imagine the tones would be one of the first things you'd have to learn (if you followed my advice, that is, and learned the sound system of a new language first (which Japanese learners do NOT do at school for English, unfortunately)) - in which case the cat would have been listening to the different tones, and reacting to those. On a language learning tape that sort of thing gets exaggerated a bit, for the benefit of the learner.

    Another thought - wows love human music. Ask any diary farmer why they play music in the milking sheds.

    Actually, I can attest that cows ADORE Christmas carols. In an attempt to cheer up a depressed friend once another friend and I took her out into the country (in NZ) and performed a cow concert in the middle of a field. Two voices and a flute. The cows loved it. They gathered around, getting closer and closer, chewing thoughtfully, and you could tell when we did a good bit because they stopped chewing and took a step forward. We ended surrounded very closely by an appreciative audience (with lovely eyelashes), and the depressed friend cheered up enormously. She also thought we were mad, but never mind that. Cows love human music, so how come we don't all have CDs of cow music? Theoretically, at least, it should go both ways, right? 

    Posted by Mary

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  6. "Cows love human music, so how come we don't all have CDs of cow music? Theoretically, at least, it should go both ways, right?"

    Ha, yeah, I guess so. Then again, if it turns out that cows enjoy the same chromatic scale humans do, then (in a sense) human music *is* cow music. 

    Posted by Richard

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  7. I suppose that means we have a mutually parasitic* relationship with cows, since they can't sing. We provide the music, they provide the milk.

    (We may be abusing the relationship with the beef thing.)

    *There's a word for this, I know, but I'm too tired to think what it is. 

    Posted by Mary

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  8. Symbiosis! Ha, very nice idea, though as you note, eating your partner isn't usually part of the deal...

    (Actually, in all seriousness, one probably could describe our relationship to farm animals as symbiotic, since those species wouldn't do nearly so well in the wild. In biological terms, it may not matter that we kill & eat them - so long as we make sure enough of them reproduce beforehand. But I digress.) 

    Posted by Richard

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  9. hi richard, yeah it does sound a little too good to be true. i'll have to try and remember where i read it and see if what evidence they had or whether it was just a hunch.

    from my own experience i'm not too sure how many birds actually sing at night anyway. at least not after dark. other than owls or something... 

    Posted by andrew

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    ReplyDelete

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