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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

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

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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:

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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)

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