Current Issues in Gastronomy—Elan Dresher and Norbert Hornstein Lingua Pranca Contents Word-TV—Tom Ernst

Linguistic Influences In Recent Research On Music

James D. McCawley
University of Chicago

(read at the University of Chicago Linguistics Department’s 1975 celebration of Godspeed Day)

In recent years an increasing number of musical scholars have come to the conclusion that musical analysis has no solid theoretical foundation, that the reality of the units and relationships in terms of which analyses are formulated has been subject to at best scanty experimental verification, and that in many cases it is not even clear what sort of reality these units and relationships are supposed to have. Is a cadence an acoustic phenomenon? a perceptual phenomenon? is it merely a convenient fiction that one employs in specifying what the well-formed representatives of some musical genre are? Until questions such as these have been answered, it is not clear what claims an analyst is making in proposing a particular analysis of a composition.

Those scholars who have shared this concern about the theoretical foundations of music have sought inspiration from work in other fields to which musical analogues can be found and which thus suggest experiments that can cast light on the status of purported musical entities. A number of musical scholars have recently carried out investigations suggested by work in linguistics. Since the results of these experiments have mostly been published in relatively obscure journals such as Zentralblatt für musikalische Grundlagenforschung, Le contrebasson et la vie humaine, and Finger, which are not widely read by linguists, it may be useful to the linguistic profession if I provide here a summary of some of the more interesting studies in which linguistic research has influenced work in the foundations of music.

In a recent paper entitled ‘The neurological reality of the bar line’, Walter Heppleworth reports on an electromyographic study in which micro-electrodes were implanted at several points in the tongues of eleven oboists. The electrodes were connected by wires that led out of the corners of the players’ mouths to inkwriters so as to provide records of neurological activity as the oboists sight-read two passages. The two passages that were presented to each subject (Fig. 1) were acoustically identical but differed as to whether the notes were written on the respective beats or were written syncopated an eighth-note before the respective beats.

Figure 1

With ten of the eleven subjects, Heppleworth found a consistent difference between the tracings of neurological activity for the two passages: the syncopated passage showed greater neurological activity, consisting, roughly speaking, of the pattern of activity found in the unsyncopated passage summed with a weakened repetition of certain components of that activity following at an interval of one eighth-note. Heppleworth draws the obvious conclusion that production of syncopated notes does not consist merely in articulating the notes at the appropriate moments: neurological activity corresponding to articulating the notes on the beat exists even when the notes are articulated an eighth-note earlier, and the syncopation consists in anticipating that neurological activity by half a beat. The one subject whose EMG tracings did not conform to the pattern just described showed essentially identical neurological activity in both the syncopated passage and the unsyncopated one. In view of the fact that this subject is a renowned interpreter of the works of Stockhausen and Xennakis, Heppleworth conjectures that for that subject the production of syncopated notes does consist merely in articulating the notes at the appropriate moments. Heppleworth reports that when he performed the same experiment on a jazz saxophonist, the patterns of neurological activity for the two passages were essentially reversed.

I turn now to research on psycho-musicology. In a paper entitled ‘Experimental correlates of musical structure’, Umberto Quattrostagioni describes an experiment in which 10 music students and 10 musically sophisticated dentistry students at the University of Reggio di Calabria were given the task of listening to tapes of performances of several compositions while following the performances with full scores, and marking in the scores all places where they heard coughs. Quattrostagioni reports gross divergences between the actual locations of the coughs and the locations at which the coughs were perceived. The perceived locations of the coughs were always between notes, never on notes, despite the fact that the experimenter took pains to synchronize the onsets of all coughs on the tapes with melodic notes. The perceptual displacement of the cough was always in the direction of a major melodic or harmonic phrase boundary; indeed, a cough that occurred in the middle of the first movement of a string quartet by Milton Babbitt was consistently perceived in the break between the second and third movements. No significant differences between the music students and the dental students were observed.

Quattrostagioni’s research group has recently undertaken studies of cerebral dominance phenomena in music. In a draft recently circulated in mimeograph form of a paper entitled ‘In one hemisphere and out the other’, Quattrostagioni reports preliminary results of an ongoing experiment in which music students, again from the University of Reggio di Calabria, were given a dichotic listening task: through earphones they were presented with two fugue subjects by minor Italian baroque composers, played one into each ear simultaneously, and they were then asked to write down the two themes on music paper which the experimenter had provided. A numerical measure of the degree of accuracy with which the themes were transcribed was set up, and values of this measure were used to compute a left-ear or right-ear advantage. Results of this experiment are being correlated with results of another experiment in which the same music students were given scores to play at sight on a piano; the scores were carefully selected so as to contain an equal number of page-turns that can be accomplished only with the right-hand and page-turns that can be accomplished only with the left-hand, and measurements were made of the amount by which the first note on the next page was delayed in each page-turn. Quattrostagioni reports a correlation between left-ear advantage on the first experiment and right-hand advantage on the second experiment that is significant at the 1.05 level.

Finally, I turn to a sociomusicological study by August Blinddarm, who for a period of three months attended every performance given at the Vienna State Opera and spent the intermissions accosting people in the lobby and asking them questions that are calculated to elicit a musical response within a very limited range. Specifically, he asked them the question which translates into English as ‘Excuse me, how does the Liebestod from Tristan go?’, except that on nights when Tristan was being performed, he was careful to ask instead, ‘Excuse me, how does the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor go?’. Blinddarm asked these questions of approximately equal numbers of persons on each floor of the Staatstoper and took care to include members of the opera house staff as well as members of the audience. After eliciting a response from each subject, Blinddarm would excuse himself and, in the privacy of a cubicle in the men’s room, would jot down the relevant characteristic of the person and his response. The responses were of several types. Some of the persons accosted sang the theme in question; some hummed it; some whistled it; still others produced from their pockets a harmonica, recorder, or other small musical instrument and proceeded to play the theme; one subject even played the Liebestod on his vertebrae by striking them with a xylophone hammer, though according to Blinddarm, his third lumbar vertebra was nearly a semitone below the B-flat that it was supposed to be tuned to.

Blinddarm found that the frequency of a whistling response descended steadily from the gallery to the main floor, except that its frequency was even lower in the box seat lobby than on the main floor. Humming, which was relatively infrequent among the gallery patrons, steadily increased in frequency as one moved down to lower floors, though its peak was in the box seat lobby and not on the main floor. Playing the theme on an instrument produced from the pocket showed a particularly interesting distribution, being most frequent in the gallery and decreasing as one went downwards, except that this response occurred significantly more frequently on the box seat floor than on the floors immediately above and below the box seat floor. Particularly interesting results emerged when Blinddarm formed the sums of various frequencies. The sum of the frequencies of humming and of whistling showed no significant variation from one floor to another, a result which provides striking confirmation of Blinddarm’s conjecture that humming is regarded as a socially acceptable substitute for whistling. Blinddarm’s preliminary parallel study in the Frankfurt opera house shows striking parallelism with the Vienna study: the frequencies of each response type on each floor of the Frankfurt Opera House differed only insignificantly from the frequencies on the next higher floor of the Vienna State Opera, except that the frequency with which the box seat patrons in Frankfurt pulled an instrument out of their pockets was close to zero, a fact for which Blinddarm has yet to find a satisfactory explanation.

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Current Issues in Gastronomy—Elan Dresher and Norbert Hornstein
Word-TV—Tom Ernst
Lingua Pranca Contents