Thursday, December 6, 2007

Language and Music

One of the themes that I've picked out for this trip, for myself at least, has been music. Why? Because where ever you go on the face of the planet, where you find people, you also find music. Like language itself, it seems to be built in to the structure of our brains. And like language, it is both universal and provincial.

After my review of I Am A Strange Loop, David French pointed me towards a very interesting book called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I'm only into the 4th chapter or so, but already a couple of things have cropped up that are worth mentioning. I had heard - a long time ago - that Asian systems of music were quite different to, say, European ones. In particular, I was told, octaves were divided into finer intervals than our semitone. According to Levitin (who is not only a musician, and music producer but also a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist - don't you hate him already?) this is not so. There might be more use of temporary intermediate notes - the equivalent of a blues string bend - but the tendency to break the octave into twelve intervals is found pretty much everywhere, including Asia.

What does change is the way that scales are organized. Where children in the West learn their Do-Re-Mi scale, each with eight notes, there are 5 specific pentatonic scales (5 notes each) in the Chinese system. Scales are purely internal inventions of the human mind - they don't exist in the real world. As such they are learned - or at least partially constructed on the biological foundations of the brain's ability to understand music - and so have a strong cultural component. This is why Chinese music sounds Chinese, or Irish music sounds Irish.

So just like language, music is something we are all born to understand, even if we learn to speak it differently, depending on where we're born. I think this means that no matter how much I might find I enjoy Chinese (or any other) music, I'll probably never understand it, and so appreciate it, as fluently as a native. Though perhaps the same can be said of any inexpert listener, even of their own music.

Sardinian Singing
Another interesting insight I got from this book relates to a particular kind of singing performed in Letizia's native Sardinia. I have already heard a lot of canto a tenore and I have a few CDs of one of the most famous performers of this style, called the Tenores di Bitti. I quite like this style - though it's best enjoyed, like Italian food, in small portions. Four male voices interact with three of the singers providing close harmonies while the fourth leads. But when the harmonies work just right, our brain - masterful at interpolating frequencies that it feels should be there - put in a fifth, female pitched voice called the quintina. Tradition has it that this is the voice of the Virgin Mary, joining them in song as a reward for their precise harmonies. Even a godless man like me can't help favouring this interpretation.


Ka said...

Interesting programme about tone languages and music on US public radio archive (the Americans make great public radio on shoestring budgets - why do I pay my license fee again?)

Check out:

Brendan Lawlor said...

What a fantastic show. Load and loads and loads of great stuff. I'm giving the link here again as it didnt' quite fit in as text.

Ka said...

Lordy, turns out I am virually illiterate (or old school if I'm trying to make myself feel better about it) at the whole blogging thing. Basic links linked from link text are beyond me! I have decided not to care. I will make a point of using punctuation correctly to compensate: colons, commas, full stops, etc. (Not to mention Lisptastic parentheses.) Oh yes!