Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Pitch perfect

Consider the simple interrogative English sentence, "She gave the package to him today?"

Now, change one at a time which word is stressed:

  • "She gave the package to him today?"
  • "She gave the package to him today?"
  • "She gave the package to him today?"
  • "She gave the package to him today?"
  • "She gave the package to him today?"

English isn't a tonal language -- where patterns of rise and fall of pitch change the meaning of a word -- but stress (usually as marked by pitch and loudness changes) sure can change the connotation of a sentence.  In the above example, the first one communicates incredulity that she was the one who delivered the package (the speaker expected someone else to do it), while the last one clearly indicates that the package should have been handed over some other time than today.

In tonal languages, like Mandarin, Thai, and Vietnamese, pitch shifts within words completely change the word's meaning.  In Mandarin, for example,  (the vowel spoken with a high level tone) means "mother," while  (the vowel spoken with a dip in tone in the middle, followed by a quick rise) means "horse."  While this may sound complex to people -- like myself -- who don't speak a tonal language, if you learn it as a child it simply becomes another marker of meaning, like the stress shifts I gave in my first example.  My guess is that if you're a native English speaker, if you heard any of the above sentences spoken aloud, you wouldn't even have to think about what subtext the speaker was trying to communicate.

What's interesting about all this is that because most of us learn spoken language when we're very little, which language(s) we're exposed to alters the wiring of the language-interpretive structures in our brain.  Exposed to distinctive differences early (like tonality shifts in Mandarin), and our brains adjust to handle those differences and interpret them easily.  It works the other way, too; the Japanese liquid consonant /ɾ/, such as the second consonant in the city name Hiroshima, is usually transcribed into English as an "r" but the sound it represents is often described as halfway between an English /r/ and and English /l/.  Technically, it's an apico-alveolar tap -- similar to the middle consonant in the most common American English pronunciation of bitter and butter.  The fascinating part is that monolingual Japanese children lose the sense of a distinction between /r/ and /l/, and when learning English as a second language, not only often have a hard time pronouncing them as different phonemes, they have a hard time hearing the difference when listening to native English speakers.

All of this is yet another example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- that the language(s) you speak alter your neurology, and therefore how you perceive the world -- something I've written about here before.

The reason all this comes up is a study in Current Biology this week showing that the language we speak modifies our musical ability -- and that speakers of tonal languages show an enhanced ability to remember melodies, but a decreased ability to mimic rhythms.  Makes sense, of course; if tone carries meaning in the language you speak, it's understandable your brain pays better attention to tonal shifts.

The rhythm thing, though, is interesting.  I've always had a natural rhythmic sense; my bandmate once quipped that if one of us played a wrong note, it was probably me, but if someone screwed up the rhythm, it was definitely her.  Among other styles, I play a lot of Balkan music, which is known for its oddball asymmetrical rhythms -- such wacky time signatures as 7/8, 11/16, 18/16, and (I kid you not) 25/16:

I picked up Balkan rhythms really quickly.  I have no idea where this ability came from.  I grew up in a relatively non-musical family -- neither of my parents played an instrument, and while we had records that were played occasionally, nobody in my extended family has anywhere near the passion for music that I do.  I have a near-photographic memory for melodies, and an innate sense of rhythm -- whatever its source.

In any case, the study is fascinating, and gives us some interesting clues about the link between language and music, and that the language we speak remodels our brain and changes how we hear and understand the music we listen to..  The two are deeply intertwined, there's no doubt about that; singing is a universal phenomenon.  And making music of other sorts goes back to our Neanderthal forebears, on the order of forty thousand years ago, to judge by the Divje Babe bone flute.

I wonder how this might be connected to what music we react emotionally to.  This is something I've wondered about for ages; why certain music (a good example for me is Stravinsky's Firebird) creates a powerful emotional reaction, and other pieces generate nothing more than a shoulder shrug.

Maybe I need to listen to Firebird and ponder the question further.


No comments:

Post a Comment