Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2016 Fund Drive.

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Relationship between language and music/poetry
Question: I am interested in the relationship between language and music and language and poetry. In The Music of Africa, Joseph Nketia says that African societies are so conscious of the relationship between music and language that they extend its use to instrumental forms. Meaningful language texts or nonsense syllables are used as verbal ''scores'' of musical rhythms or as mnemonics for teaching and memorizing drum rhythms. There are instrumental pieces based on some kind of textual framework, as well as others that originate as songs, The linguistic factors that operate in vocal music therefore apply to some extent to text bound instrumental music as well. One can assume that irregular stress placement and additive rhythms exploited in instrumental music are developed from the treatment of speech rhythms in vocal music. As well as discussing the relationship between African music and African tonal languages, Nketia also quotes the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly as saying that because Hungarian differs in stress and natural intonation from many European languages, it follows that music composed to Hungarian words, provided it conforms to the natural pitch of the language, almost defies transposition into European languages. As natural as iambic verse is to English and to some extent even German, French and Italian, so diametrically opposed is it to the character of the Hungarian language. Apart from the specific examples quoted above, has much other work been done in this area. Is there any academic department specialising in it and can anyone suggest any more general studies, please?
Reply: Human beings cannot produce speech, in any language, without also producing prosody, including pitch, tempo, amplitude, duration and so on, features which also characterise music. Children are living examples of precisely the intimate relationship between music and specific languages that you describe. Children acquire their languages through babbling the prosody of those languages that are relevant to them, in their environment. This is also why nursery rhymes endure the way they do, in that they crystallise prosodic features of their languages. This blog post of mine, ‘Learning to speak in tune’, has more on this, at You can also look up work on the topic of language and music by Aniruddh Patel and by Gottfried Schlaug at their academic sites, respectively: and Madalena
Reply From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira      click here to access email
Date: 29-Oct-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Relationship between language and music/poetry    Mike Hammond     (29-Oct-2012)

Back to Most Recent Questions