Co-variation of tonality in the music and speech of different cultures

Authors: Shui’ Er E. Han, Janani Sundararajan, Daniel Liu L. Bowling, Jessica Lake, Dale Purves
Publication:  PloS one
Publication volume & date:  Vol. 6, No. 5. (27 May 2011)
DOI:  10.1371/journal.pone.0020160
Abridged Abstract: Whereas the use of discrete pitch intervals is characteristic of most musical traditions, the size of the intervals and the way in which they are used is culturally specific. Here we examine the hypothesis that these differences arise because of a link between the tonal characteristics of a culture’s music and its speech. We tested this idea by comparing pitch intervals in the traditional music of three tone language cultures (Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese) and three non-tone language cultures (American, French and German) with pitch intervals between voiced speech segments.

This study found that music from cultures that use tone languages (ones, such as Mandarin, in which the pitch contour of a syllable effects its meaning) had more melodic slope reversals than cultures with non-tone languages. The one exception is the major third, which was more common in non-tone cultures. I wonder if this is at all related to the prevalence of triadic harmonies in Western music. Language may change music, but can music change language?

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