How do speech patterns in different languages appear in music, both instrumental and vocal?

I have been recently informed that the Italian language has a five-syllable speech pattern. Mendelssohn was keen enough to notice this pattern, so he based the second theme of his Italian Symphony on this pattern.

I have never studied German, but I notice that many German melodies start with an upbeat so and a downbeat do. (Overture to Tannhauser, theme from Brahms First, O Christmas Tree) The same is true of melodies in English. (The Farmer in the Dell, Miss Lucy Had a Baby)

I once tried to compose a Partita Coreana, using Korean folk songs which happen to have Baroque dance rhythms. However, very few Korean utterances begin with unaccented syllables, so I couldn't find a folk song beginning on an upbeat. That meant that I couldn't write an Allemande.

Can you think of other ways that patterns in a language appear in the music of speakers of that language?

3 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
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    Some of Grieg's melodies (particularly in his piano music) have a triplet, or other short note values on the first beat of a bar, mirroring speech patterns in Norwegian, I understand. Also, in Czech and Hungarian one finds fewer anacruses (upbeats at the start of a phrase or melody) because both of those languages always have the stress on the first syllable of words.

    One will also find that these trends dictate one reason why translations of texts from their original language can have limited success. Whether consciously or unconsciously, composers usually imitate the rhythmic and tonal patterns of the language they are setting. In addition, the way vowels perform in different languages will heavily influence the musical setting they receive. Therefore, even with a skillful translation, things can still sound strangely awry when not sung in their native tongue.

    Of course, sometimes a composer will be working in a language not his own, which is why some of Handel's settings in English (just as an example) don't always work as well as they might, having accents on the wrong parts of words and not following the natural melodic contour of a sentence.

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  • 1 decade ago

    I cannot make any really sensible contribution being neither an expert in speech patterns of various languages (although I love words) nor an academic musicologist. The little I can offer is to point out that the one composer who did try to base his vocal music on the speech rhythms of his native tongue was Janacek. The other comment I would make (which may or may not be relevant) is that probably the commonest language set by composers is Latin, having regard to the vast corpus of music for the Roman liturgy written over the last 1000 years or so

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  • 1 decade ago

    Hello Suwahaksaeng,

    I am no expert here but I wish I could answer your intriguing question.

    I do notice, however, that in Indian Classical music( or arabic) their melodies tend to have a lot of upper/ lower mordents and turns.

    Sometimes it can be quite melismatic.

    Some languages, have 1or 2or 3 word syllables, so to make it melodious, they tend to improvise by adding melodic decorations.

    I notice that in Hindi Classical music the same verse ( 2 lines of poetry), the same lyrics will be repeated but with an entirely different melody that follows.

    Mandarin is also another language that tend to have 1-2 syllable words.

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