Published online 11 November 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news041108-12


Music mirrors tone patterns in our speech

Classic English and French composers influenced by their language.

Composers' mother tongue helps to shape their work.Composers' mother tongue helps to shape their work.© Punchstock

Would Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance or Debussy's Clair de Lune have sounded the same if the composers had been born in different countries? Probably not, according to researchers who have found that the melodies composers write are influenced by the language they speak.

The team's analysis shows that fluctuations in pitch in music written by classic French composers vary much less than in British music. The difference mirrors the patterns of pitch found in the corresponding languages.

Musicologists and linguists have tried to connect cultures' speech with their music in the past but have only had luck with tonal languages, such as Chinese, which assign meaning to words based on their pitch.

The new work is the first to connect melody with non-tonal speech. Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, and his colleagues used advanced computer software to analyse recordings of people saying different sentences in British English and in French. The software measures the pitch of each vowel, then works out the size of the jump in pitch between one syllable and the next.

“People internalize language patterns and express them in their music.”

Aniruddh Patel
The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego

For example, in the word "finding", the second vowel typically registers about 4 semitones higher than the first.

The researchers carried out the same analysis on musical notes from pieces by English and French composers such as Edward Elgar and Claude Debussy. The researchers avoided modern composers, because they would probably have been exposed to a range of cultures and languages.

Whereas previous work has compared the range of different pitches in languages and their associated music, Patel and his colleagues looked at the size of the jumps from note to note.

"We looked at how variable the intervals between pitches were, not just how variable the pitches were," says Patel.

The intervals in French speech and music turned out to be considerably less variable than their English counterparts. In other words, classical concerts and café chatter may sound rather smoother in Paris than in London.

The researchers will present their results at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held in San Diego over 15-19 November.

Revealing rhythms

Two years ago, Patel and his colleague Joseph Daniele carried out research at The Neurosciences Institute, showing that English language and music both contain more rhythmic variation than the corresponding French forms1.

<mediar rid='m1'/>Together, the rhythm and melody results make a strong case that language significantly affects composers. "This work suggests that people internalize those patterns and express them in their music," says Patel.

He adds that understanding the patterns in music can help to illuminate the statistical models our brains use to digest language.

The team now plans to explore how music might affect the way we communicate. "The next step is to turn the camera around," says Patel.

And work on music and tonal languages continues to move forward. Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, will report to the same meeting that native Mandarin speakers are nearly nine times more likely to have perfect pitch. 

The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego

  • References

    1. Patel A. D., Daniele J. R., Cognition, 87. B35 - B45 (2003). | Article | PubMed | ISI |