Music and language

Have you ever thought that music, even instrumental music, shows definite national characteristics–that Russian music sounds, well, Russian, and French French, and German German, and English English, and so on? Well, it’s not just an instinctive, slightly politically incorrect view, it appears: it’s a feeling based on reality. Though music is often touted as a universal language–and indeed it is, in its emotional appeal–the particular is also embedded within it, not just the composer’s personality and spirit, but also the sound of his or her native language.
According to newspaper reports, Dr Aniruddh Patel and his team at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, analysed recordings of sentences spoken in French and English, and compared the rhythms and variations in pitch or melody. Then they did the same kind of analysis on French and English instrumental music. In the words of Dr Patel, they discovered that ‘the music differs in just the same ways as the languages. It is as if the music carries an imprint of the composer’s language.’
I thought that was an interesting and elegant piece of research. Always feels like that, when your gut instinct’s been proven correct! Now what I wonder is– does the same hold for variations of the same language? Do Australian instrumental compositions follow the melody of the Australian variety of English, for instance?

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Carlos Medina
Carlos Medina
2024 years ago

Very interesting!
So what does that say about Rap? Actually.. BeatBox-ing is proof! it’s just like that!

And what about instrumental-only music like techno, ambient house or JM Jarre for ex?

And what happens when it includes a few languages in it, like some African and other “world music”? I guess it would be reflective of the major influences then… mmm…

2024 years ago

I’d say it’s likely that music reflects not only the language of the place but also the language of the time. Dance forms and conventions are also strongly linked with music and language. Although the links are less strong, other art forms, such as painting and sculpture, are also linked.

2024 years ago

Another interesting angle to this is discussed in this article in the Guardian,12996,1353605,00.html
Apparently the language that you learn has a significant impact on whether or not you are likely to have perfect pitch. If you want your child to have perfect pitch, have them learn Mandarin Chinese and learn music from an early age (no more than 4).

2024 years ago

I studied music at Uni, and did a dissertation on English music/poetry, so you’d think I’d have something more to say about this. But there you go…

Actually, it’s bloody hard to make any concrete statements about these things (music is a national language/international language/regional language/reflects the times/reflects the place/reflects this cultural movement/reflects that cultural movement – etc, etc, etc). All statements have a certain validity to them. Nevertheless, there is a definite national sound to music, for whatever reason – and I think it applies to different genres, too. (Rock – classical – pop – jazz, etc, etc).

Vaughan Williams, one of my favourite composers, was an advocate of the ‘national music follows the contours of the national language’ argument. He wrote several essays touching on this theme, and they’re well worth reading.


Aaron Copland on Vaughan Williams and the English Pastoralists: “It’s like watching a cow stare over a fence for an hour.”