Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Language’s Influence on Music

The more I travel and the more I become familiar with the various languages of the venues where I’ve resided and visited, the surer I become that our mother tongues have a huge influence on the way we perceive the performance of music. Tempo, articulation and note length all, are affected by one’s mother tongue.

Since my first residence in Europe (1962-64), while playing with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, I was fascinated by  idiosyncrasies of languages other than English. Studying these differences I learned two things: Different languages move at different speeds, and (something many of us were probably already aware); women speak faster than men! In English, for example, women speak approximately 175 words a minute while men speak approximately only 150. A further research on that fact would certainly be interesting but in the meantime we can find amusement in just asking why.

More important is the speed of our mother tongue and the influence it has on our performance of music. The French language on an average moves at about 250 syllables per minute, Japanese about 210, German 180 and English is 160. I haven’t researched numbers for Italian but I’m sure it’s considerably faster than French; an educated guess would be 280 (especially for Italian women). These language velocities influence greatly the way we hear and perceive sound in both speaking and performing.

Consonants also differ greatly between languages and the consonants of our mother tongues also have an enormous influence on musical performance in the way we approach articulation; Articulation is the consonants of the musical language. In the verbal languages of the world, linguists can’t agree on the number of consonants because they don’t know where to draw the line of distinction. The consonant T, for example, differs greatly from one language to the other. An Italian T is made with the tongue very forward, just at the top of the upper teeth, while Chinese the tongue is very high at the roof of the mouth. Those tongue placements result in quite different sounds for the same T, (please see the blog “Articulation”).

But there is another aspect of the influence of language on music performance that has come to my attention just recently while working with Japanese brass players. There is a prevailing tendency for Japanese brass wind players to play all tongued notes short; whether it's a half note or a sixteenth note it’s frequently played at a shorter length than the printed music indicates. Last week while giving a lesson, I asked several times for the quarter notes in a passage to be played tenuto and that there be no silence between the notes; still the silence between the notes remained. Finally, I used my name as an example. “My name is Bobo not Bo      bo.” When the student said the syllables after me verbally the silence remained. “Please try it again, my name is Bo ͡ bo ͡ ”. It started to get better: finally, the problem was and understood and resolved. 

Suddenly, it became very clear, Japanese is the most staccato language I’ve encountered and much of it is spoken with silence between the syllables especially if the syllable begins with a consonant. That is one of the reasons why some Japanese brass players occasionally play western music with a “foreign accent”, IE very short. This is not a serious problem and when it’s pointed out and understood it’s easily corrected.

Sometimes a foreign accent can be charming, but sometimes it distorts the intent; it’s up to the speaker or the player to decide which will better benefit the result.

Tokyo, November 7, 2007
Revised Tokyo, July 15, 2012