Language as musical sound

Une thèse intéressante sur l’origine des styles musicaux nationaux qui lie expression musicale et langue maternelle.

  • 2004-11-22

In yesterday’s Guardian, Ian Sample, a science correspondent, writes about an intriguing approach to pinning down those intractable differences between national styles in (classical) music. Researchers from San Diego attribute them to the composers’ respective native languages:

[The researchers] 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.”

The first point refers to what is called stress-timed vs syllable-timed languages, which is very noticeable in poetry. (I realized only recently that the French definition of the alexandrine meter — a particularly important one in French poetry — is totally different from the one I learnt in high school (in Germany). The notions overlap, and every German or English alexandrine is also a French one, but the actual meters function quite differently.)

Still, poetry is language, and symphonies or string quartets aren’t. Debussy, Fauré and Roussel might sound similar (compared to non-French romantic composers) because they actually worked together, or because they competed on the same marketplace for music, or because they were trained at the similar institutions and under the same standards.

The idea is a fascinating one, however, even if I wonder how it would apply to other periods than late romanticism. What about Handel, Purcell, Lully, Couperin, Rameau, Bach, Buxtehude, Telemann, Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi and Geminiani? Could they be told apart as well? Did Handel compose with the accent of a German who learned English in Italy?

Update: Nature’s news site talks about the paper all this is based on here.

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