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.
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.
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.