Music and Language

Saturday, 2013 March 09

I was studying for a completely different subject today with getworkdonemusic tubthumping in my earphones. Listening to techno music with its repetitive elements (including vocals) provided a flash of insight.

Let us start by thinking of language in terms of the following elements: conversational cadence and intonation, typical number of syllables, and information density (which influences how fast a language is spoken). I think that the properties of the English language along those parameters lend themselves well to the familiar 4-beat, 4-chord structure. In the same way, Tagalog songs tend to catch on quickly, because it lends well to the same familiar 4-beat, 4-chord structure (this includes rap). This is probably why we find familiar languages pleasing, and learning a new language knocks us a little “off beat".

In stark contrast, this is probably why we, as western-influenced Filipinos, find African, Scandinavian, Indian, Arabic, and Chinese conversation and music quite strange. Along the same contrast, I find that the more popular Cebuano songs are limited to slow ballads and religious songs, because we are trying to fit a language (Cebuano) to a musical paradigm that evolved from a very different language (English).

I define “popular" as “those that reach everyone's ears without them making a significant effort of seeking such music". Note that my opinion stems from the fact that popular Cebuano songs haven't found much diversity other than those I mentioned above. Bisrock had its heyday but I don't hear much of them anymore. I probably haven't been to local musical events much, but there is a local band that caught my ear: Sugbuwanon. For a start, their music isn't quite “western".

Since I already mentioned information density, here is another non-expert opinion. I read that Nihongo has very low information density. It means that very little information can be gleaned from each syllable, causing it to be spoken rapidly (at least to us with western ears). From anecdotal observation, I think this is why J-Pop and K-Pop songs that reach a worldwide audience have a “cute bubblegum pop" appeal. (Yes, I just made that up).

It turns out that music isn't really universal at all, but is suited to the language and culture where it grows.

Music geeks, language geeks, culture geeks, psychology geeks, all-around geeks, what do you think? I'm probably just rambling about, but anyway, there goes. So, aside from saying “Respect Local Music", I guess this is another way of appreciating it.

I did not google up anything new while writing up those thoughts until the end. Not surprisingly, I found a plethora of research and opinions on the same subject.