Category Archives: musicality

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Musical Enough To Be Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Irving Berlin once conceded, “There’s no such thing as a new melody. There has been a standing offer in Vienna, holding a large prize, to anyone who can write eight bars of original music. The offer has been up for more than twenty-five years. Thousands of compositions have been submitted, but all of them have been traced back to some other melody. Our work is to connect the old phrases in a new way, so that they will sound like a new tune.” Like other songwriters of Tin Pan Alley, Berlin freely borrowed rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic patterns from well-known sources, shaping them in clever ways for associative effect. Drawing upon the cultural knowledge base and collective memories of his audience, he concocted songs that were not only familiar upon first hearing (and thus favorably received), but also reinforced what music sounds like.

As Berlin seems to imply, the difference between deliberate musical quotations and inadvertent use of existing phrases is intent. Whether the writing process is consciously market-driven or unconsciously informed by prior exposure, the music is invariably built upon conventions. It is not just that musical sounds exhibit controlled pitches, intentional structure, organized rhythms, and expressive content—all true—but that these elements are given to us in culturally shaped and relatively consistent ways. The composer pulls from a pool of customs and norms, and the listener discerns those customs and norms in the music.

This is obvious with Berlin’s calculated appropriations and the presumably diatonic eight-bar melodies submitted to the Viennese commission. But what about abstract music? Can the rule-breaking feats of the free jazzer, electronic manipulator, or avant-garde noise maker be considered “musical” in this general sense? The fact that these adventures in sound are even called music points to the affirmative.

No matter how far one strays from musical normalcy, there is no escaping convention’s influence. The musician’s artistic aim might be departure and new frontiers, but the musician’s instinct is to create works that fit preexisting formats. This tension manifests in curious tones and timbres that still somehow sound like music. The envelope is stretched but not destroyed.

An illustration is the landmark score for Forbidden Planet (1956), composed by the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron. It was the first soundtrack created entirely by electronic means, and was pieced together from sounds activated by cybernetic circuits. Louis Barron described the circuitry as “a living thing . . . crying out, expressing itself . . . [with] an organic behavior going on.” Yet, while circuits produced unusual musical building blocks, they were not responsible for the finished product. As James Wierzbicki explains in his comprehensive guide to the score, Bebe Barron “scrutinized the sonic output and served as the ‘emotional yardstick’ for the resulting music.” Ostensibly random fizzes, pops, buzzes, beeps, swooshes, and sizzles were arranged into repeated patterns of short duration, creating leitmotifs of a psychedelic, but still detectable, kind.

Wierzbicki concludes that the score “works” because, despite its odd exterior, it basically holds to Hollywood norms. The pitches are strange, the instrument is innovative, the concept is groundbreaking, the method is novel; yet the patterns, forms, and repetitions bear the clear imprint of the Barron’s Western musical background. So it is with other unorthodox projects. The ingredients and techniques are out of the ordinary, but the product is musical enough to be music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Is It Musical?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-54) was among the first to propose that computer programs would someday simulate human creativity. He argued that the hardwiring of computers and human brains were essentially the same, and that the “thought processes” of both could be reduced to mechanical calculations. This concept of disembodied cognition gained enthusiastic support in the initial wake of the computer revolution. Among other things, it spurred predictions that programs would be able to compose pieces and improvise jazz in a way indistinguishable from human musicians. Some even anticipated a machine that would match Bach or Beethoven.

These conjectures failed to recognize the embodied nature of the musical arts. Phrasing is structured on patterns of breathing. Articulation and tone length are imitative of language. The functional morphology of hands informs the range of a musical line. The emotional mind directs melodic movement. Many of us intuitively discern human performances from computer-generated music, even when a digital creation uses samples from live instruments. Our humanity detects the unhumanity of the piece.

Computers cannot, by themselves, generate the musical in music. They may excel at translating a sequence of symbols into audible information, but they do not grasp or communicate structural or affective musical meanings. They produce precision without spirit.

In a similar fashion, human performers can be judged by their musicality, or the feeling they bring to a given piece. As listeners, we make connections between the music we hear and extra-musical images, ideas and sensations, such as drama, poetry and passions. If we do not sense these layers in a performance, we withhold the label of musical. An assiduous player can master instrumental technique and conquer challenging literature. But unless something of that person’s interior life is heard, the playing will come across as dull or dry. This is largely what sets impassioned artists like Jascha Heifetz apart from many other skilled musicians.

In contrast, popular singers often lack the dexterity and tone quality typically looked for in Western music. If assessed exclusively for their voices, they would be deemed mediocre or worse. However, they possess what might be called a musical soul. Their innate sense of sound—and their sense of self projected in that sound—is both palpable and seductive. Their instruments may not be conventionally beautiful and their music may not be objectively artful; but their presentation is thoroughly musical. Singers fitting this description include icons such as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.

Impressive range and technical acumen do not always amount to musical music. Meticulous performers who convey little emotion are akin to exacting computers: the notes are polished and the passages precise, yet the essence is wanting. In the end, it is difficult to articulate or quantify exactly what this essence is. But we know it when we feel it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.