Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Science & Music: Talk of the tone

Science & Music: Talk of the tone
By A. D. Patel


By Richard Burrows

“To appreciate how our species makes sense of sound we must study the brain’s response to a wide variety of music, languages and musical languages, urges Aniruddh D. Patel.”
Music involves many processing mechanisms of the brain. Because of this, there is a great deal of interest in finding the relationship of music cognition to complex cognitive abilities.
Areas in research, involving the idea of music and language sharing a sense of sound has just begun. “There are more connections between the domains than might be expected on the basis of dominant theories of musical and linguistic cognition — from sensory mechanisms that encode sound structure to abstract processes involved in integrating words or musical tones into syntactic structures.”
The majority of research in this area has centered on Western languages and musical traditions. Research that has been completed in non-Western musical cultures has found that the structure of Western scales is not universal. The subtle microtones of Asian music can sound out of tune to Western ears, however there is one universality, the octave. Across cultures, there is consistency in using certain pitches and intervals to define the framework for musical perception. This exhibits a connection of sound categories in language. “Each language has it’s own set of distinctive speech sounds or phonemes, which native listeners learn implicitly as part of making sense of the sound stream that reaches their ears.” This connection presents evidence that speech and music share similar brain processes for forming categories.
The next section of the article covers material from his lecture on cross-cultural rhythm perception. Please refer to the “Grey Matters” blog for a more detailed discussion.
Some phenomena fit into both categories. The ‘talking drums’ of west and central Africa communicate with patterns that mimic tones and syllables of their language. The drum messages are embedded in musical performance, and are intended to be understood by listeners who are familiar with the drum language. Although it is not as efficient as spoken word, these drums are able to convey novel phrases.
Another area of interest is whistled language. These languages are based on tone, and used to exhibit rhythmic and syllabic speech patterns. “For example, the whistled language of the Hmoung people of southeast Asia is based on their spoken language and encodes the seven different tones that they use to distinguish word meaning in speech.”
These neurological processes are not well researched, but hold a wealth of knowledge that could lead to a better understanding of language and music. Through examining the relationships between language and music, we will discover a deeper understanding of the power of sound.

This article is intended to be an overview of current research. Dr. Patel just scratches the surface of this topic, but definitely attains a desire for further discovery. The examples are vague but have a strong connection to the discourse. Overall, I feel this essay is a solid abstract of the available research regarding this interesting topic.

Talking drums and whistle language are a very interesting subject. I agree with Dr. Patel’s notion that there is a lot to learn about the cognitive processes of these ‘languages’. I feel that researching these basic structures of communication will certainly benefit our understanding of the relationship between music and language. This area of research is in its infancy and I look forward to further publications.
I am also intrigued by the comparisons of other cultures. Non-Western cultural research is another area that has potential to further our understanding of cognitive processes.

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