Music mirrors tone patterns in our speech

Classic English and French composers influenced by their language.

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.

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.

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