Category Archives: Aural

Bilingualism – and also music…

I’ve always felt somewhat cool towards the oft-quoted links between Music & Maths, feeling that Music has more in common with Language(s). As neuroscience reveals an equal amount of our intuitions to have been either true or misguided, I was pleased to see this article about some recent research led by Nina Kraus – one of the most engaging speakers at last June’s Music/Neuroscience conference hosted by Edinburgh University. It suggests that bilingualism – and music –  are advantageous when it comes to processing sound. Much of this comes to being able to block our distractions – increasingly necessary in our busy world.


Having recently attended Music: An Explanation by a Guitar Hero, which concluded with some deliberations on prosody (the music of speech which amplifies meaning), I chanced upon an inspirational TED talk by film critic, Robert Ebert, who lost his lower jaw, and his speech, through cancer.

Exploring text-to-speech technology, he found that, unless he entered very time-consuming XML coding, the prosody was never quite right. Work is currently in progress with Edinburgh-based company, CereProc to refine his voice, using recorded material from Ebert’s television archive. Exploring their site, I was quite astonished at how far along the speech synthesis road things have travelled. You can hear some of their voices here or type in your own text and choose a voice here. While CereProc finish their refinements, Ebert is using Apple’s Alex voice.

It is very touching to see how Ebert responds during the talk. The words are his own but his wife and two other close friends help out with reading. Despite the fact that the oral delivery is at one remove, he gestures as though delivering the words personally.

Let me, once again, flag up some interesting lectures on prosody by Peter Roach.

A question of tone

One of the themes of this blog, if such a thing could be said to exist, is the endeavour to see music in its wider setting (society, culture), through exploring links with other disciplines (language, science). In that regard, I’m always grateful to receive invitations to talks in Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD).

On Tuesday 2nd November, I attended a talk by Professor Bob Ladd entitled Suprasegmantel phonemic distinctions in Dinka speech and song. The Dinka people form the largest ethnic grouping of Southern Sudan. Allow me to quote Professor Ladd’s own summary of Dinka song tradition:
Making and singing songs is an integral part of Dinka culture. Songs are used to chronicle all aspects of individual and communal experience: to tell stories, to insult rivals or enemies, to praise family or cattle, and so on. Songs are typically sung solo or in unison, accompanied (if at all) by clapping or simple drumming. Rhythm is generally a simple regular pulse, and song segments or phrases may be of different lengths with no overarching metrical structure. Scale is uniformly pentatonic.

For those who, like me, are interested in languages but are a little vague about the vocabulary of the science of linguistics, permit me to attempt to unpack the title of the talk – Suprasegmental phonemic distinctions in Dinka speech and song:
  • Segment – the individual sounds which make up speech
  • Phoneme – the smallest segment is known as a phoneme e.g. the word bad has one only syllable, but three phonemes: b – a – d
  • Suprasegmental – a phenomenon can be described as suprasegmental when it takes place over two or more segments e.g. prosody, tone, stress.
Professor Ladd described to us his work as part of a wider project – Metre and melody in Dinka speech and song . Specifically, he and his colleagues are exploring how a language which relies on musical phenomena (pitch, duration, timbre) for meaning is set to music. Do the two languages intuitively come together? Is there a clash of pitch and duration imperatives? If so, which one yields and when?
Three musical components of Dinka prosody (a Nilotic language) were featured:
  • Tone – there are four tone phonemes – high, low, rising, falling
  • Quantity – there are three lengths of vowel – short, medium & long
  • Voice Quality – there are two voice qualities – modal (normal voice) and breathy (somewhere along the journey from whispering to normal speaking)
The combination of these sound options, when mixed with seven possible vowel sounds, allows for 168 possibilities, most of which occur in regular usage. At first glance, it would be impossible to believe that such a spectrum could be reduced in any way without meaning being compromised.
One further feature essential to understanding the rhythmic aspect of setting of words to music is that most stems are monosyllabic – consonant-vowel-consonant or consonant-glide-vowel-consonant.
Here is some example of such singing:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Despite the many musical features of this language, it would seem that linguistic constraints are over-ridden by musical ones, without any obvious loss of understanding. Professor Ladd’s own parallel with this was that we can easily understand people when they whisper, despite the loss of pitch and timbre involved.
I found myself wondering whether – given the monosyllabic nature of the language, and the prevalence of the pentatonic scale – there was a tendency to align important words e.g. verbs with structural notes of the scale (do-mi-so) and less important words e.g. prepositions with the less important ones (re-la). It seems that this hasn’t (yet) been explored.
I found this a thoroughly engaging talk, not least because it made me realise how much we take for granted in the field of word setting. Possibly, this is because our culture is one which leaves word setting to experts. I look forward to discovering more about the project.

Harry The Piano and Gauntlet of Fire

There should always be room for a bit of fun in the school day, especially if it involves exposure to amazing musical skill. My PT today showed me this video of Harry The Piano playing the main theme from Harry Potter in a huge variety of styles – shouted out at random from (I presume) the person doing the filming. This is a great inspiration for pupils, many of whom (along with some teachers) have a dread of melodic improvisation, far less harmonic.

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I’ve said it before, but feel it’s worth repeating, that the parallels between Music and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) are not, in my opinion, as straightforward as one would imagine. One might imagine reading, writing, listening, speaking in MFL to equate with reading, composing, listening, playing in Music. I’d contend that a more realistic parallel would be playing, composing, listening, improvising.

Compared to many generations gone by, we have made great strides in regarding musical improvisation as something ordinary mortals should be able to attempt, but there’s a long way to go

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Last session I included a short Desert Island Discs session in an In Service as a prelude to offering a session on Audacity. The item I chose to represent my love of the craft of musical arranging was I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Cole Porter arr. Nelson Riddle) from the album Songs For Swinging Lovers:

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At that time, this was the only arrangement of the song I really knew and, as so often happens, it seemed like the best and only expression of the song. However, on Monday of this week, following another In Service, I heard a contrasting arrangement on the Radio 3’s In Tune – one of those moments when you end up sitting in the car, at the journey’s end, until the song was over. The singer is a sprightly 82-year old Barbara Cook with Michael Kosarin on piano and Peter Donovan on bass. I’m presuming the arrangement to be the work of Kosarin – a celebrated Broadway musical director. You can hear the song here at 27:35 (until it’s over-written by the edition on Monday 2 Nov). What impressed me particularly was the harmony from 28:27 – the arpeggios seeming to capture the giddy relentlessness of romantic obsession.

I’ve always felt the art of arranging to be taken for granted. Perhaps that’s a compliment to many arrangers – that their work makes songs sound so natural that it seems like no big deal. However, the result is that, compare to performing & composing there is little discussion of the topic. That’s why I consider this six-part interview of Nelson Riddle to be something of a treasure:

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Sistema Scotland International Conference

I have never thought of motorways as beautiful, but two journeys along a sun-kissed, deciduous M9 this weekend gave me pause for thought – if you can truly pause at 70 mph. I travelled to The Raploch Community Campus

for the Sistema Scotland International Conference. International it truly was with delegates from as far afield as Venezuela, Colombia, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Syria and Iraq.

Venezuela’s El Sistema – now a 34-year old programme of social transformation through music – is the result of the vision of Maestro José Antonio Abreu.   You may have seen the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra take the Proms by storm in 2007, under the electrifying baton of Gustavo Dudamel – possibly El Sistema’s best known son.

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It was around this time that the Scottish version, ignited by the inspirational Richard Holloway

began to take light. Funding, none of it so far governmental, was secured for five years and, in the turmoil of present times, it’s not difficult to imagine the trepidation which must surely accompany thoughts of the future. That future will certainly include opening other centres in Scotland. Although any new initiatives will be keen to learn from the experience of what has been achieved so far, the grass-roots, community-led nature of the idea means that carbon copies of the Big Noise initiative, specific to Raploch, are unlikely. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is the unique nature of the Raploch Community Campus. Indeed, fact-finding visits of the Scottish team to Venezuela revealed a wide diversity of style and content within the Venezuelan model. One might expect this when 250,000 children participate in 125 youth orchestras across the country. Nicola Killean,

the tireless Director and CEO of Big Noise, embodies the flexibility necessary to work of this nature: genuinely predisposed to incorporating the varying views of those involved without losing touch with the original vision; allowing the project freedom to grow and to follow its own destiny, while keeping an eye on how its users will dovetail with existing local authority and community initiatives e.g. youth orchestras.

The conference featured a stimulating balance of talks, discussions and practical music sessions, in which we experienced (in one case along with the children) games intended to enhance musicianship and aural skills. In these well thought-out, fun sessions, run by the Big Noise musicians,  we were kept on (and off) our toes by a style accessible only to those who love what they do and who are attuned to the mercurial minds of the very young. That said, the team were very honest about difficulties experienced in adjusting to this necessarily experimental process and the ethos of teamwork essential to success (perhaps even to the survival of the project) was unmistakable. Being more hands- and feet-on than theoretical, there was limited in-depth analysis of teaching methodology. One thing which came across, however, was the openness to mixing methods – KodálySuzuki and traditional notation-based teaching.

Key delegates included members of the Cuarteto Millennium:

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Beneficiaries of the original Sistema and, to this day, members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, their next stop was Paris, to catch up with the orchestra’s tour of Europe and Canada. In addition to working with the children they put on a concert along with the Big Noise musicians. Ollantay Velasquez, the 1st violinist, took part in panel discussions in which, to my mind, he displayed the essence of the sistema approach – simultaneously serious and playful. He was very clear that social integration was key to the process and the fact that many who have passed through el sistema do not  go on to follow musical careers in no way undermines the value of the experience. In many cases, the community of music saved young people from a life which would have made it impossible for them to enter the career of their choice – possibly any career at all. Ollantay was aided in the discussions by the very impressive simultaneous translation skills of Melanie Beaumont.

One of the presentations/discussions I found the most striking was Education, Community and Social Services Working Together. Lesley Gibb, Stirling Council’s Early Childhood Link Officer, gave a short, inspirational presentation in which she outlined the ethos, policies and evidence of the early years work in the area. Key to understanding ethos was a very moving poem (which appears here in parallel text) by the Italian educationalist Loris Malaguzzi.

Invariably, the word elitism came up over the weekend – on several occasions. Why classical music? Why orchestras? My own supposition was that this format, allowing the largest community of people to play simultaneously, seemed the natural choice – in addition to being the proven format in Venezuela. It was also pointed out, by Richard Holloway, that Maestro Abreu believes there to be something transcendental in the Western-European classical canon. One articulate commentator, in a large discussion group, pointed out that the Venezuelans, carrying less baggage than us, simply listened to the music without becoming bogged down with our own notions of class and cultural imperialism. I was reminded of a remark I heard on the radio (sorry, details a little misty now) where a speaker sought to put paid to the argument with these few words: music isn’t elitist – people are elitist. The question broadened out to “why not other art forms – or even football?” Helena Lima, Vice Director of Portugal’s Orquestra Geração-EMCN brought up the wealth of neuroscientific research indicating that music engages and connects more areas of the brain than any other activity. It is present in every culture and in every person. If transforming lives and enhancing child development is the aim, then this consideration is key.

One of the nice touches was that lunch on the Friday included a seating plan which encouraged us to mix with the children involved in the project. This is something which does not happen in schools I visit, where apartheid prevails. I can understand that many pupils like to get away from us at lunchtime and that, on some days, staff hunger for a few moments of adult company with their meal. However, perhaps one area of the canteen could be set up for mixed dining?

There was so much more to this brilliantly organised conference than this short report can possibly portray (several events ran concurrently). The welcome was very warm and I found the experience enriching, inspiring and moving. I hope to return some day, perhaps to visit any new centres which open and I look forward with great interest to future developments.

The Connected Voice

I’ve just been catching up with Alistair McGowan on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction. Aside from the expected entertainment value, he struck me as being someone of great insight. This came through particularly in his descriptions of trying to get into the what makes characters tick. From a technical point of view though, what really struck me was his description of what we warm to in a voice. It could be summed up as:

  •  resonant voice = voice connected to the body and therefore to feeling thereby encouraging trust
  • constricted voice = the opposite

 This made me wonder about voice projection in our profession. The subject has come up in terms of voice preservation and avoidance of unnecessary injury but not, to the best of my knowledge, in terms of putting pupils at their ease. Moreover, I can’t help feeling that, perhaps, a little more knowledge of the workings of the primordial instrument might give us one more tool in our armoury in understanding physical manifestations of psychological features in pupils.

The above Chain Reaction link will take you to listen again until 18:30 tomorrow (Wednesday 7th Oct.) when, speaking of resonance as we were, Alistair McGowan interviews the cathedralesque Simon Callow.

You can also see Alistair McGowan describe some of his working method and observations here:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

Desert Island Mashup

I’m in the process or preparing a short CPD session for colleagues on the free, open-source sound- recording and editing program, Audacity. When pitching the idea, I suggested that we could each prepare a Desert Island Discs CD, featuring 1 minute each of eight tracks. In addition to learning such aspects of the program as fade-ins and fade-outs, it would encourage us to discuss music with one another – a thing which, somewhat ironically, rarely happens. The other irony is that, in seeking accommodation, I discovered that the room containing the most computers, loaded with Audacity is not in a Music department, but CDT.

To experiment with cross-fading, I’ve cut down my original Desert Island Disc extracts to a few seconds. This is the sort of mashup one could use to give an overall flavour of, say, a school concert. While I think you’ll agree that this selection desert-island-discs-mashup doesn’t represent the ideal dinner party mix, it probably doesn’t matter as, on a desert island, one tends to dine alone. “Just as well,” some of you may say upon hearing these extracts.