Agenda Poetry Article: Inextricable Links Between Music & Language

In western culture, old English folk tales, or Cante-Fables as they are known, are, as their name suggests, stories half spoken and half sung. At a point in history the Cante-Fables split to become what we know now as folk songs and folk tales – a parallel to what some theorise to be how language and music developed. Similarly, the Portuguese call their national song, Fado,‘Poemas Cantadas’, or, sung poems. There are also remarkable examples of cultures for whom words and music are both one and the same, such as the U’wa culture of Columbia that to this day communicate and transfer the knowledge and history of their culture solely through song. In Mandarin, a tonal language, meaning it is dependent on the perception of pitch, it is even possible to entertain audiences by playing music that has a ‘spoken meaning’. There are more examples of how deeply embedded the link between music and language is in human communication, and more still are the number of academic disciplines researching the causality of this phenomenon.

Historical Musicologists have long established that:

The human voice and hands are the principal means for linguistic expression but also the earliest musical instruments… A vocal apparatus sufficient for the production of sustained singing has been estimated as arriving perhaps 1.5 million years ago. Percussive hands have been around longer.

The evolution of language is undoubtedly highly intertwined with the evolution of musicdespite there being much debate as to whether they evolved alongside or separately from one another. On one hand, one body of evidence suggests that the further we go back prehistorically, the more speech resembles song until primeval man’s first tone and expression had no differentiation whatsoever between song and speech, which supports the notion of language evolving from music. On the other, the opposing stance, led by the well-known linguist, Steven Pinker, asserts that music developed as an appendage to language itself, alluded to beautifully in his famous quote:

As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining… accurate perception… of the world. Compared with language… music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be… a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.

While perhaps cold and limited, this statement can be seen to reflect our society’s attitude to the arts and consequently art’s function within society, since we find their numerous beneficial aspects (discussed below) either sidelined or outweighed in favour of commerce.

Pinker’s statement aside, human beings have been drawn to sounds near the boundary of speech and song throughout history, from ‘devotional chants, and speeches, [to] … rap music’. Diana Deutsch, whose research specialises in the cognitive perception of music and language also states that:‘Poets and lyricists are our practical experts on the boundary… because they arrange words to enhance our perception of musical qualities.’

Musicians themselves have similarly perceived this relationship. Janacek dedicated four decades of his life to spoken and melodic transcriptions in addition to the folk music collections he is famed for, and, according to biographer Zemanova: ‘Janacek wished to investigate the music of language rather than the language of music.’. Mendelssohn also closely considered this relationship, famously saying that:

People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These too seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.

We see that music and language both also play a significant role in regards to child development. Mothers the world over sing to their children as early as they speak to them, and it has been proven that both song and instrumental music are vital tools in developing linguistic ability in young children. The El Sistema programme which runs in South America and the UK provides strong evidence year-on-year that music boosts not only the literacy and social skills of young children, but also makes an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the development of independence, school attendance and overall achievement, with student groups achieving higher reading and comprehension scores after musical training. It has also been shown that ‘the longer the duration of the music training… the better the verbal memory’ and that ‘adults with music training in their childhood demonstrate better verbal memory.’

In neuroscience, research has also identified connections between auditory-processing skills and verbal-processing skills. Nina Kraus’ research into this relationship showed that musicians have better connections between their auditory and verbal processing, and also that brain waves resemble the sound wave which it is perceiving, and so it is reasonable to assume that the same may be true for language.

In his famous string quartet ‘Different Trains’, which samples fragments of experiences given by evacuees of the Second World War, Steve Reich imitates the exact intonation of the sampled speech in individual string parts. One particular study by Diana Deutch which looked at whether we hear repeated segments of speech as speech or sound, found that when isolating and repeating a phrase, it ‘suddenly appears to burst into song…’. John Cage’s famous statement, which relates to this phenomenon, said: ‘What makes something music or language is the way our minds interpret it…’ and, albeit unintentional, Reich’s use of this auditory illusion is a strong artistic representation of Deutch’s research since it makes use of the necessary isolation and repetition a phrase requires to transform it from speech to song.

The aspects of music that allow us to identify whether music is sad have also been found to be present in speech. Songs we consider to be sad will often start with a distance between two notes known by musicians as a minor third – think ‘Greensleeves’ - and it is widely accepted that there is enough evidence to suggest that language and music ‘share resources’ at certain neural processing levels.

Artistically too, both music and language can express themselves in almost identical ways, sharing both terminology – pitch, rhythm, timbre, tempo, phrasing, intonation, timing, delivery/performance – and transcription techniques.  Yet despite this we have come to a point where these two mediums that share so much in common, appear much more distinct to one another than they are due to their written form.

Looking at the subject from my own personal experience as a composer and writer, I can see that going back to my primary school scrawlings, nothing seemed to make more sense than to work with both music and language, sometimes together, and sometimes not. I also remember being told that I had to specialise, and that no one who did more than one thing ever did it well, and yet I couldn’t help but compose and write. I also happen to be a sound-colour synesthete which means I hear sound as colour, and often catch myself looking for the right colour words for a phrase in a poem or the ‘right colour’ mode, sound, or chord for a piece; my synesthesia does not discriminate between speech and music.

Whether working with language and/or music to construct my work, I like to give close attention to constructing a clear the ‘line’ or ‘thread’ that carries the work through from beginning to end, regardless of whether it is atonal, arrhythmic or asymmetric musically or linguistically - these forms can still carry ‘lines’ of sorts within them. I am a stickler for technique and am fascinated by the structural  approaches in twentieth century composition and literature, as well as those found in twelfth century Japan and Malaysia, and I enjoy cross-applying structural norms across poetry, prose, composition, and song. At times this produces rather unworkable, nonsensical results, but there are many occasions in which the results tease a boundary just enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Songwriting always felt like the opportunity to explore the balance of one medium against another, not just sonically, but visually also. Perhaps owing to my study of composition I never felt constrained by the use of conventional structures. I like to give attention to the extent to which lyrics might stand as a poetic work in their own right, and enjoy toying with how presenting a song score with a strong aleatoric (chance) element can alter the listener’s perspective on a work that could have been perceived as through-composed.

What I am appreciating most about the New Music Industry is the freedom it presents those with less conservative and commercial approaches to songwriting to flourish outside of the mainstream and genre-defined cultures and connect directly to their audience, exploring concepts in songwriting that go beyond what we currently believe is possible and/or viable. There is much to be explored in this area and I find myself wondering the extent to which commercialisation has stunted the development of this art form and what new genre might exist as an after-work bedroom project; what cannot be exploited for monetary gain is seen as having no worth, and so often remains unseen. However, the wider impact of music’s emerging business models is yet to be fully realised, and the potential for the research into the artistic relationship between words and music to be brought into society through these models has arrived.