Music and speech

Researchers at Duke University, North Carolina, have recently discovered that 12 tone intervals of the (Western) musical scale correspond closely to the sounds of speech, according to an article on ScienceDaily.

The researchers analysed recordings of spoken English and Mandarin using spectrum analysers and compared them to musical scales. They found that 70% of the speech sounds had frequency ratios that matched the intervals between musical notes. They also believe music sounds ‘right’ to us because the notes used are similar to the sounds of speech.

Other projects they plan include one to try to find out whether the musical scales used in different countries are related to the languages spoken there. They will also investigate why we tend to perceive music a major key as happy, and that in a minor key as sad.

Maybe singing came before speech, as discussed on this blog. If this is so, then the reason why musical notes are related to speech could be because speech developed from singing, rather than the other way round.

This entry was posted in Language, Music.

7 Responses to Music and speech

  1. jdotjdot89 says:

    That’s fascinating… it could also help explain the development of tonal words in certain languages, such as Chinese. Actually, if this turns out to be true, it would be just the opposite–languages would have started out completely tonal, and then most modern languages (particularly non-Asain ones) lost their tonal qualities.

  2. Aeneas says:

    Interesting theory. It’s all the more plausible when you consider ancient Greek, where most linguists agree that the accent marks actually represented different tones in the spoken language, before the classical age.

  3. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Interesting. I wonder if the Swedes already know of this….

  4. Polly says:

    Fascinating. I don’t know if this really means singing came first. I don’t hear a lot of operatic apes. 🙂

    I wonder how much tonality we use in English. For instance, a question definitely requires a rise in tone at the end of the statement. Do tonal languages use tones in this manner? Can they do so without “mixing up” the words? Can a person’s speech be “flat” not in the sense of toneless, but in the wrong key?

  5. Paul says:

    But where might this leave pentatonic scales, or microtonal systems such as Slendro (Indonesian)? I’d always rather assumed that, especially since the rise of just intonation, the 12-note system was rather divorced from the natural order.

  6. Kevin says:

    Music is already very mathematical in that sound waves must conform to the laws of physics relating to frequencies. There are natural patterns and intervals so it’s equally possible that both singing and speech just follow the same laws of physics.

  7. jake says:

    I think it would neat if they compared the speech sounds of several different languages to the music of that region. Gealic, especially, is known to lend itself to a very rich, full sound while the “twang” of the Southern American States has given us the nasality of country music.

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