Great composers scored on language
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Saturday November 20, 2004
Why is Elgar's music for Land of Hope and Glory so quintessentially English, while Debussy sounds so French? It is all because the music mimics the composer's native language, say scientists.
The researchers studied the question because while many classical scores have a distinctly national feel, no one had put forward a good explanation for why that should be. "You would expect songs to sound like they came from the performer's country, but pure music has no words, so why should it?" said Aniruddh Patel at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California.
Dr Patel and his team suspected the reason might be something to do with the composer's native language. They analysed recordings of sentences spoken in typical French and English, and compared the rhythms and variations in pitch, or melody.
They found that English had more of a swing than French, a rhythm produced by a tendency in English to cut some vowels short while stressing others. The melodies of the two languages also differed, with pitch varying far more in spoken English than French.
The team then did the same kind of analysis on music, comparing the rhythm and melody of English classical music from composers such as Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams, with that of French composers including Debussy, Fauré and Roussel. "The music differs in just the same way as the languages," said Dr Patel. "It is as if the music carries an imprint of the composer's language."
The researchers say that consciously or not, composers may have used the rhythm and melody of their native language to influence their music, especially around the turn of the 20th century, a time of particular musical nationalism.
"Composers, like every other person in their culture, learn the patterns of their language and it's latent in their minds, so when they compose, they have those patterns to draw on," said Dr Patel. The findings may go some way to explaining why Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and circumstance" sounds so English, even without the words the Eton schoolmaster AC Benson later added to make it the country's unofficial national anthem, Land of Hope and Glory.
Dr Patel, who was speaking at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in San Diego yesterday, now hopes to investigate whether pianists from different countries impose elements of their language on pieces they play - the equivalent of playing the piano with an accent. "Pianists do interpret music differently, and language might play a part".
| || || |