Tag Archives: Pitch

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="http://www.youtube.com/v/lz6aPMsdY5I?rel=0" 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.

On your home pitch

If you’ve ever seen the film production of My Fair Lady you may recall the scene where Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering listen to a recording of the many vowels sounds of which humans are thought capable.* I first saw the film as a teenager and can still recall the feeling of aural challenge. This same feeling came flooding back to me today during the second tableau (from 0:28 to 0:50) of the following video on polski alfabet – particularly the final seven sounds. If you think you’ve a good ear, why not give it a go?

[kml_flashembed movie="http://uk.youtube.com/v/6s-vMd_pBks" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

There are thought to be two types of pitch ability:

  • perfect or absolute pitch – where a person can identify or produce a note without reference to any previous sound

  • relative pitch – where a person can identify or produce a note thanks to the context i.e. previous note, harmonic setting etc.

I’ve always felt that there is a third factor which is familiarity with the instrument (or language) to which one is listening. People’s pitch perception is aided (perhaps unconsciously) by an awareness of the acoustical properties of instruments with which they are familiar. I suppose this goes for tuning systems and harmonic language. I wonder how many of us could sing or whistle a fragment of a melody from a radically different musical culture after one hearing the way we could with, say, a fragment of a Scottish folk song. In language terms, I’m sure we must find it more difficult to distinguish between a set of very similar sounds – none of which we often use.

I was very impressed with the above video – yet another example of the bounteous gifts available online – and spent a large part of the morning experimenting with Windows Movie Maker (thanks to Ewan McIntosh – as I didn’t even realise such a thing existed). The aspect of bonding the visual with the aural was good fun and much easier than I thought. I would post here my little experiment the photographs and music are still in copyright.

* I seem to recall the number as being around 60 but there is a more ambitious estimate of 200 in paragraph 11 of this.