THE MELODY OF GRAMMAR: AN EXAMINATION OF LANGUAGE AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO ELEMENTS OF MUSIC
AUTHOR: Nikhil Gowd
Nikhil is entering his second year at the University of Western, where he is majoring in political science. His current research projects focus on peace building and conflict resolution, and the adaptation of waste management processes during transitions to low-carbon economies.
Music is often solely viewed as being fundamentally constructed from two main pillars: melody and rhythm. However, the nuances of languages around the world enormously impact musical systems. Language and its myriad forms actively shape the presence of music in the lives of humans and should be viewed as a significant determinant of musical composition. This paper will explore the immense role language plays in one’s ability to learn music, in the interpretation of musical performance, and in the crafting of musical rhetoric within society.
Language and music share similar processing mechanisms within the human brain. The formation of sentences, the use of correct grammar, and the ability to comprehend complex linguistic forms, draw many parallels to musical skills such as processing melodies and becoming proficient in musical theory. Within auditory systems, for example, “there exists a significant and strong relationship between individuals’ pitch processing abilities in music and language” (Perrachione, 2013, p. 7). These instances of shared connections between music and language also mean that the language an individual learns while growing up will influence their ability to learn music. The first experience all children have with melody is through the language they imbibe in their surrounding environment. The music of youth “is largely an experience of language, language distorted in its intonation and rhythm” (Jourdain, 2002, p. 61). While this preliminary experience of music may be common among all children, variations in linguistic forms lead to a wide range of capabilities when it comes to acquiring new musical skills. For example, the learning of tonal languages, or “languages where words take on different meanings depending upon the tones in which they are enunciated” (Deutsch 2007), has been shown to increase an individual’s chance of gaining perfect pitch. A study that compared speakers of Mandarin, a tonal language, and English, found that Chinese music students were close to nine times more likely to exhibit perfect pitch than their American, English-speaking counterparts (Deutsch 2007). The medium through which an individual communicates with those around them dictates the cognitive development of their musical abilities, specifically relating to their interpretations of tone.
Within certain music cultures, language is held in the same regard as melody and rhythm, and is treated as being crucial to the success of any musical endeavour. Indian Classical music, as an example for examination, views language as being an integral part of vocal music. In fact, the effectiveness of the musician to accurately depict the nuances of a melodic arrangement is inextricably bonded to its literature, as the words “enable delineation of the notes, musical phrases, and tonal features of the raga (melodic cycle)” (Pudaruth, 2016, p. 3). The value placed on the phrases used in musical compositions directly relates to both the performer and the audience. Indian Classical music places an equal burden on the artist to demonstrate proficiency in both musical and nonmusical literature. This relationship between phrasing and melody is analyzed by Nair, who comments that a vocalist “focuses on the melodic possibilities that can be unleashed using the vowel and phonemic possibilities in words and clusters of well-chosen phrases from the bandish (composition)” (Nair, 2007). The success of the performance is dependent on the individual performer acknowledging the value of the words being used and how they directly impact the melody being presented. This relationship is equally important to the experience of the audience. The founding scriptural elements of Indian Classical art forms say that the goal of all art is to evoke an emotional response from the listeners. The largest determinants of the audience’s receptivity are the main musician and the main character of the lyrics (Pudaruth, 2016, p. 7). Clearly, language prescribes the means in which an individual artist presents his or music. Regardless of the melodic merit a composition may exhibit, it is meaningless without the phrasing to engage listeners.
Language directly impacts how society perceives mediums through which music is expressed. Instruments, while they may simply be objects, are often viewed in different perspectives depending on the language being spoken. The association of a particular gender to a corresponding instrument is a prime example of how society can place labels on aspects of music. Descriptive phrasing used by humans to identify and classify instruments impacts how they assign gender specific associations. It is typical that “round shaped instruments. . . belong to the feminine group, while tubular shaped instruments. . . belong to the masculine group” (Vuksanović, 2015, p. 391). A study conducted by a group of Serbian psychologists sought to analyze grammatical gender and how it impacts the mental representation of an object. When visual stimuli of different instruments that showed varying shapes was viewed by participants in their experiment, they associated male adjectives with the male shaped instruments and female adjectives with the feminine instruments (Vuksanović, 2015, p. 394). Evidently, the descriptive mechanisms humans employ in language impact gender neutrality and lead society to assign arbitrary labels to various elements of music.
The structures of communication language create in daily life demonstrably play a significant role in shaping music and its many facets. From youth, speech cements the formation of neural pathways that can ultimately dictate a music student’s success in his or her life. Poetry and prose do not only have purpose on paper, but also in the songs and music of the world. Music and rhythm may be the commonly known foundations of music, however, it is blatantly evident that language is a prominent determining factor for many aspects of musical expression.
 Two experiments were conducted in the study, however, the latter is more relevant as it accurately depicts how humans are exposed to musical instruments. The first experiment attempted to prove gender association without visual stimulus, while the second experiment provided pictures and linguistic terms for the participants to assign genders. Outside of a controlled experimental context, people almost always see instruments and hear the terms associated with them. Therefore, only study two is pertinent for the purposes of this paper.
Deutsch, D. (Professor). (2007, September 24). Musical Language. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.radiolab.org/story/91512-musical-language/.
Jourdain, R. (2002). Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York: Quill.
Nair, R. (2007). A rasika’s journey through Hindustani music. New Delhi, India: Indialog.
Perrachione, T. K., Fedorenko, E. G., Vinke, L., Gibson, E., & Dilley, L. C. (2013). Evidence for shared cognitive processing of pitch in music and language. Plos One, 8(8), e73372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073372
Pudaruth, S. K. (2016). A reflection on the aesthetics of indian music, with special reference to hindustani raga-sangita. SAGE Open, 6(4), 215824401667451. doi:10.1177/2158244016674512
Vuksanović, J., Bjekić, J., & Radivojević, N. (2015;2014;). Grammatical gender and mental representation of object: The case of musical instruments. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 44(4), 383-397. doi:10.1007/s10936-014-9293-7