Looking At Rhythm In Music And Language: Are They Related?

2 Oct

In additional to exploring the neural correlates behind music and speech processing, researchers are examining whether the language of a given culture might have influenced the structure of music.  In understanding how music came to be organized, linguists and music theorists have suggested that language, specifically the rhythmic structure of language, might have influenced music composition.  While previous research has explored instrumental composition (Patel and Daniele [2003]), Temperley & Temperley (2011) argue that vocal music might provide a direct access to the relationship between speech and music.

The research duo focused on a specific rhythmic pattern called the Scotch Snap.  Common to English and Scottish vocal music, the Scotch Snap consists of a sixteenth note and a dotted eighth note.  The sixteenth note is placed on the downbeat of a song with the dotted eighth note following immediately after.  Both notes are paired with a different syllables from a song’s lyrics (see example above).   Because the Scotch Snap is unique to the music of English-speaking cultures, Temperely & Temperely theorized the rhythm pattern could be a result of specific rhythmic components in these languages.

The experimenters examined vocal melodies from 100 hundred songs from English, Scottish, German, and Italian popular music of the 18th century.  Within these melodies, the researchers examined the Scotch Snap rhythm (1:3: Sixteenth note: Dotted Eighth note) as well as its retrograde form (3:1: Dotted Eighth: Sixteenth note).  A ratio between the Scotch Snap and the retrograde version was then fabricated.  In the German and Italian categories, not a single use of the Scotch Snap was found.  However, in the English and Scottish songs, the Scotch Snap was found to be quite common.  A higher prevalence of the rhythmic pattern was found in the Scottish songs, while a higher ratio of the Scotch Snap was found in the English songs.  The researchers concluded that the Scotch Snap is an earmark of music from English-speaking cultures but is more abundant in Scottish music.    

Next, Temperely and Temperely analyzed stressed-syllables in the four language categories.  A stressed-syllable language places emphasis on vowels, creating a short / long relationship between the syllables of a word (think: never, after, father — the first syllable is shorter than the second).  English, Scottish, and German were found to use stress-syllables while Italian was not.  Since German language uses stress-syllables but German music did not contain any Scotch Snaps, the researchers were perplexed.  The researchers then measured the duration of stressed syllables in English and German and found that English syllables are shorter in comparison to German and Italian stressed syllables.  The researchers suggest that duration of English stress syllables more accurately represent the duration of a sixteenth note played at a moderate tempo than German or Italian syllables.  It was also noted that German vocal music was heavily influenced by the Italian style, and thus could been attributed the the lack of the Scotch Snap in German music.  Thus, this study raises important questions on the stylistic attributes of vocal music, and suggests that there may be a connection between the Scotch Snap and the rhythmic patterns found in English languages.

Patel, A., & Daniele, J. (2003). An empirical comparison of rhythm in language and music. Cognition, 87, B35–B45.

Temperley, N., & Temperley, D. (2011). Music-language correlations and the “scotch snap”. Music Perception, 29(1), 51-63.


One Response to “Looking At Rhythm In Music And Language: Are They Related?”

  1. Jonathan Still (@jonno50) February 7, 2012 at 1:47 am #

    Have you seen Philip Tagg’s video on the Scotch Snap and language here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3BQAD5uZsLY ?
    Or his article about music and language (among other things) http://www.tagg.org/articles/xpdfs/IASPM1106.pdf ? If you haven’t, I think you’d enjoy it.

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