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JMM 7, Fall/Winter 2008, section 4
THE MUSICALITY OF LANGUAGE
An Application of Musical Analysis to Speech and Writing
The relationship between language and music has long been of interest to scientists and scholars in many fields. While language is generally accepted to be an ability of human beings that distinguishes them from other species, music is almost as ubiquitous among human cultures, seemingly with origins in the distant past, long before recorded history. It has been recognized since ancient times that language and music share certain characteristics, including rhythm, timing, and timbre. It is also the case that a great deal of music has a language component in the form of lyrics, including songs forms with instrumental accompaniment. There is an obvious area of overlap between the two, as song can be understood as speech set to the specific rhythmic, tonal, and harmonic patterns we recognize as music.
The literature contains a significant body of work on the relationship between language and music. This research crosses disciplines, and tends to focus on certain aspects of the relationship. For example, a number of researchers have considered the nature of cognitive processing of language and music in the brain. Lerdahl (2001), for example, treating a poem as music, found a similarity in brain localization and function with respect to meter, duration, contour, and timbre in processing language and music. The perception of musical pitch and the understanding of linguistic syntax and semantics appear to be separate, however. Patel (2003) noted that language does not appear to have a periodic structure comparable to music, but statistical patterning of event duration suggests that rhythm in language influences musical rhythm in a given culture.
The parallel development of language and music has also been investigated, often in the interest of better understanding human language deficits arising from a variety of causes. McCarthy (1985) noted that music can play a part in aiding language development in children. Similar results were reported by Overy (2003) in the context of dyslexia. Zoller (1991) described the general application of musical activities to foster language and personal development in children without specific problems in these areas.
An interesting area of inquiry has centered on the extent to which language might influence the nature of instrumental music in a particular culture. Patel and Daniele (2002), for example, found that such a hypothesis was somewhat supported by their comparison of prosody in spoken language and the structure of formal music in English and French speaking societies. Ramus (2002) had previously found significant differences in the speech rhythms of English and French, which seems to coincide with the work of Patel and Daniele. Patel (2003) also addressed the issue of language’s effect on music. Further work in this area, comparing English and French as well as several other European languages was carried out by Huron and Ollen, (2003), who were able to replicate Patel and Daniele’s (2002) findings.
Research has also focused on the phenomenon of stress-timing versus syllable-timing in describing the rhythm of language. English and German are stress-timed languages, while French and Spanish are syllable-timed. Stress-timing refers to the recurrence of stressed syllables in a regular pattern, which may also require expansion or contraction of individual syllables to maintain the pattern (see Fox, 2000). In a syllable-timed language, syllables tend to be of regular duration and maintain regular time intervals. Lexical stress and pitch and amplitude variations for emphasis tend to be absent, giving the impression that languages of this type are very regular in rate (see McCarthy, 1975). Rhythm in language depends upon isochrony, the tendency of a speech item to be repeated at regular intervals. Lehiste (1977) and Couper-Kuhlen (1993) have suggested that isochrony is largely perceptual and, hence, subjective, relying upon the tendency of the human brain to seek rhythm in events occurring in a near regular manner.
Much of the research in this area has taken language as its starting point, perhaps because the innate musical ability most humans demonstrate is far inferior to their language ability, and mastery of music appears to require special training. Speech, in the context of human interaction, is fundamental and vital for communication, while music functions as a cultural artifact for ritual or expressive purposes or for entertainment, i.e. enhanced forms of communicative elaboration. Nonetheless, the consideration of language from the point of view of music is illuminating, and has the potential to provide valuable insight into a number of disciplines, including aesthetics and literature, and may serve as a means for explicating some of the more subjective aspects of language, such as beauty, persuasiveness, humor, and emotion. It is not surprising then, that popular culture provides ample material for studying the nature and effect of language musicality.
If we consider the following examples:
- To be, or not to be, that is what needs to be asked.
- It was the best of times, it was not so good a time.
- Quoth the raven, “Never again.”
they verge on the ridiculous because the real quotations are so well known in Western culture. Even for the reader who is unfamiliar with the works where these lines can be found, undoubtedly he has heard references to them in movies, television, or even in other written works or daily speech. These sentences are deeply ingrained in English-speaking culture as examples of perfectly crafted, highly effective language, the originals of which are shown below:
- To be, or not to be, that is the question.
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
- Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
The first is the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III, Scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The second is Charles Dickens’ immortal start to the novel A Tale of Two Cities. The third is a line from the refrain of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem, The Raven.
When the real quotations are considered again, what makes them so memorable? In the study of language and writing, there are countless reasons and ways of analyzing styles of writing that determine what makes one good and another not so good. But an extremely important factor contributing to the success, so to speak, of a phrase or saying is one that is more often associated with music – the rhythm.
How does rhythm apply to speech, a medium in which there are no time signatures or other such indications of rhythm, groupings, or duration of words and syllables? It should be noted that in the analysis of writing, meter is a key factor, especially in poetry, and punctuation, sentences, and grammar are, in effect, the equivalent of the groupings of notes, rests, and phrases in musical notation. The importance of meter comes in shaping our perceptions of what we are hearing and our subsequent reactions to it, and, in fact, music and language are parallel, not only in notation, but in the importance of meter to structure and phrasing, as well as determining our understanding of what we hear. When we hear something appealing, we remember it, but, more importantly, the ease with which a phrase can be repeated, the balance of its structure, and the presence of patterns that are relatively simple within the overall structure creates sounds that are “catchy.” That is, sounds fulfilling these rhythmical requirements are distinctive to listeners. They sound good and stick in our minds, and, significantly, stand out from background sounds, allowing our minds to “filter” what we hear and hold onto the salient points, in a way giving us understanding without necessarily consciously “hearing” layers and layers of sound.
Musically speaking, while harmony gives a piece affective power, the rhythm and meter make a melody memorable. Rhythms create patterns that a listener can use as markers to identify structures which, in turn, create the distinctive qualities of a melody, while the meter suggests the pulse which adds a sense of order and regularity; even when very complex rhythmic structures seem to obscure the meter, the underlying pulse is still subconsciously discernible, thereby allowing a listener to follow a melody, or melodies, without perceiving a feeling of randomness. These two elements contribute to the potential of a melody to stand out while creating a lasting impression that allows for later recall of the melody again and again; the sense of organization provided by the meter creates a context for the rhythmic components of the melody, allowing the rhythmic structures to take on a comprehensible form which can be reproduced. In short, these two qualities are what allow us to hum a theme from a symphony, even if we can never remember its development. Consider Figure 1 below:
Figure 1 Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Movement 1, A theme
Almost everyone familiar with either classical music or Western popular culture has heard this theme somewhere, although there are undoubtedly a large number of listeners who do not necessarily know what it is from. It is, of course, the A theme from the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. For many listeners, however, this is the whole symphony, in the sense that this theme is what makes the piece Beethoven’s Fifth, and everything else is basically filler, a joke that is even used on The Simpsons, in the season 16 episode “The Seven Beer Snitch,” aired in 2005, where the audience leaves after the first four bars, remarking that they already heard “the good part.” What makes this theme, now a classic symbol in Western culture, so memorable is its rhythmic structure. The motif is short, made up of repeated notes ending on a sustained note, and the phrase overall is perfectly balanced; the motif is repeated almost exactly, with the only rhythmic difference being a longer sustain in the second subphrase. Importantly, the rhythm is simple, and easily reproduced by the voice. Compare this theme with another example, Figure 2:
Figure 2 Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Movement 2, B theme
This melody is nowhere near as distinctive as the first example, although it is, in fact, the B theme from the same movement of Beethoven’s fifth. What makes this theme so much less memorable is that it is not rhythmically distinct. The melody is made up entirely of quarter notes; any distinctiveness comes from the pitches themselves, and pitch alone is not marked enough for the average listener to retain without distinguishing rhythmic features. In addition, while the range of the melody is only a perfect 5th, each two bar subphrase begins with a leap, a characteristic not readily performed by the voice in a sustained passage. Now consider the following example in Figure 3:
Figure 3 Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Movement 2, A theme
Regardless of whether or not a listener might recognize this theme if it was played or sung to them, it is hardly a standard like the first theme. Here we have a more complex melody made up of dotted patterns interspersed with sustained notes, the phrases and subphrases are long and not symmetrical. Combine these rhythmic characteristics with a melody constructed with leaps, accidentals, and a range of an octave, and we have a melody that is beautiful, appealing, but difficult to sing, and with patterns that are not evident, but require active listening to discern. This is not a melody that is inherently easy to commit to memory, yet it is a part of the same symphony from which we took our first two examples – this time from the second movement.
How does this type of musical analysis relate to speech? There is a correlation, and it can be easily seen in the original phrases that we examined in altered form at the beginning of this paper. Expressed rhythmically, with any variations of pitch resulting from vocal timbre and inflection removed, we get Figure 4:
Figure 4 Rhythmic Representations of Spoken Phrases
Note: while speech is not necessarily expressed as precisely as the notation suggests, this still an accurate indication of the rhythms associated with the above phrases, much in the same way as a pop song might be precisely notated, but in performance, liberties could be taken in the rhythms while still remaining faithful to the original notation.
The first example from Hamlet is the most complex rhythmically, in that the subphrases are not symmetrical, with the quarter note triplet adding an intricacy beyond a simple emphasis on each beat. The phrase as a whole still sounds balanced, however, as the first subphrase is more staccato, followed by a sustained section, a combination that we perceive as stable – the opposite feelings of disjoint followed by sustain are perceived as equalizing and the phrase feels whole, complete. If we examine an alternative for this phrase in Figure 5:
Figure 5 Alternative Rhythmic Representation of Quote From Hamlet
that follows more closely the punctuation of the written words, the phrase actually seems more balanced, even with the added complication of the rest which further divides the subphrases, as the three eighth notes mirror the triplet while still providing the feeling of resolution that comes from the contrast of staccato/sustain. In addition, the subdivisions of the phrase are not so intricate that the rhythm and forward motion of the phrase overall are lost, nor is it overly disconnected into too many small parts. The sentence from A Tale of Two Cities is a perfect example of balance, with the exactly symmetrical phrase structure and two identical subphrases forming the whole, with triplets and dotted motifs forming the distinctive patterns of the phrase. This is an excellent example of a pattern that is effortless for the voice, but still characterized by enough rhythmic interest to remain distinctive to our hearing. The Poe refrain similarly displays this kind of balance and ease of discernment, with patterns that are distinctive without overpowering complexity, combined with the resolve on the last sustained note tempering the previous rhythmic forward motion.
What is so interesting about this discussion is that understanding of this parallel between music and language or speech allows for the utilization of the effect on a listener, the most obvious result of which is seen, not only in composition, plays, and so forth but in the professionally written speeches of public speakers such as politicians. Some of the most effective exploitation of the effects of rhythm and meter on listeners, however, can be heard on television, the most interesting use of which is the manipulation of meter for comic effect.
Consider the episode of The Simpsons from season 10 entitled “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” that aired in 1999. The song at the end of the episode parodies “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie, and there is a line where Rod and Todd Flanders sing, “why can’t you be like we are;” why can’t the other kids in Springfield stay out of trouble and obey their parents and various other authorities. The next sung line comes from the parents singing, “oh, what a bunch of brats,” but in between the two lines of text, there is a short musical phrase that accompanies the onscreen action of the “bad” kids throwing tomatoes at the Flanders kids. Remove the images that accompany this song and listen only to the soundtrack and there is an extra bar, an extra bar that disrupts the expected rhythm and the resolution of the phrase. Stripping away all extraneous sounds, including this musical “break,” and referring only to the melody, we can see this disruption in Figure 6 :
Figure 6 Sung Melody From the Simpsons Episode “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken”
The phrase is balanced, with forward motion that we expect to resolve, but it is interrupted. If this is all we hear, separate from the show, we might feel a kind of suspense and anticipation, the more discerning listener might even ask himself, what goes in that space? Combined with the comic images onscreen, the disturbance of what would be “correct” metrical convention in this case alerts the listener to something unexpected occurring onscreen. This is more subtle than a technique such as “mickey mousing” that is common in animation, where the sounds follow the motion of the visual images. In addition, what is an interruption of the song in one sense actually adds to the continuity of the scene, as if the tomatoes had been thrown in accompaniment to the adults singing their next line, there would be an incongruity between the words and the imagery that would actually impede viewers’ understanding.
The Simpsons provides an ideal example of the above idea of manipulation of meter in speech to similar effect as well. The character, Ralph, is the most obvious example of the connection between awkward or unskilled use of meter and comic effect in the minds of listeners and viewers.
“I heard your father went into a restaurant, and he ate all the food in the restaurant, and they had to close the restaurant.”
“Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel were in the closet making babies, and I saw one of the babies, and the baby looked at me.”
These lines were spoken by Ralph in “King-Size Homer” (season 7, 1995) and “Grade School Confidential” (season 8, 1997) respectively. The evils of the run-on sentence in constructing a beautiful piece of writing are well known, but what about in speech? Ralph’s emphasis on “close” and “saw” in their respective quotes does nothing to alleviate the sense of rambling, of forward motion with no resolution, and is too random to create patterns or motifs that are memorable. His sentences are constructed, not with subphrases or units, but are instead each is a never ending “melody,” the spoken equivalent of taking Beethoven’s B theme and playing it over and over again, slightly varying the pitches each time. They sound clumsy because there is no balance and are too long to be comfortably reproduced. However, they are not unpleasant in that, like Beethoven’s theme, the movement is endlessly sustained, as opposed to, for example, halting, and forever disjointed. We remember them this time, not because they impress us with their clarity and style but because they are funny. There is a cultural association in western society between repetition and a childlike quality, and the rambling nature of Ralph’s speech evokes a subconscious link to the chanting rhymes of childhood which we associate with youth, fun, and silliness. It is, therefore, interesting to note that, in the context of film and television scores and scriptwriting, this use of what we consider “bad” writing is actually an important technique to achieve a desired effect on audiences, one that requires just as much knowledge and understanding of culture, and the technical aspects of music and the written word as the creation of a technically impressive piece of prose.
The quality of language is a highly subjective characteristic, which is frequently evaluated differently by individual speakers. The musicality of language, epitomized by its rhythm, seems to be an important consideration, but it is worth noting that individuals’ ability to perceive rhythm varies greatly (see, for example, Stevens, 2004; London, 2004; Fitch and Rosenfeld, 2007). Nonetheless, every individual speaker of a given language possesses the rhythmic perception required to use that language, even if he or she does not possess the ability to create what others would perceive as high quality language. This very much coincides with many of the research findings to date on the relationships between language and music cited above but also suggests that additional studies taking music as a starting point (using musicians as subjects) as well as beginning from language (using professional writers as subjects, perhaps) would be valuable in better understanding this aspect of cognition.
It is also notable that, at a time when society places so much emphasis on popular culture in the form of television and film, mediums that rely heavily on “good” writing, there is significant societal consensus on what programs and movies have effective scripts. And while much research indicates that the melodic elements of popular songs are more important than the lyrics in shaping a listener’s overall impression and response, (see, for example, Frith, 1981; Edwards and Singletary, 1984; Rosenbaum and Prinsky, 1987; Desmond, 1987; Shumway, 1991; Christenson and Roberts, 1998; Fitch and Rosenfeld, 2007) it is interesting to note that listeners often feel that lyrics are extremely significant to them, to the point where lines from popular songs become iconic symbols in popular culture. This again suggests the extremely important place of effective language use in popular culture, as language is available to everyone within a given culture, as opposed to musical considerations, the informative qualities of which are not actively accessible without specialized knowledge, training, and abilities, thereby providing a means for an audience to describe their impressions, and contribute to the creation of symbolic cultural elements. The effectiveness of language relies heavily on “timing,” the often amorphous concept cited by comedians and other performers as determining the success of a particular routine or act, but also on concepts usually limited to music, such as balance, tension/resolution, and subdivision of notes and phrases. An application of musical principles to examples of language use such as these that have been vetted by the public would likely provide intriguing results and greatly enhance our understanding of how the mind processes and uses both language and music and the interaction in our perception of each. This method of analysis might, therefore, provide a way of quantifying the quality of writing, as the use of the theoretical principles of music, when applied to writing and combined with current methods of language analysis, offers insight into the way in which the structure and patterns of speech influence a hearer’s reactions. In addition, it would allow for a greater comprehension and awareness of many aspects of popular culture, including dialog in television, film, and writing, not only in scripts or songs, but also all forms of creative writing.
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