Musical Morphology

What is music? A continuous stream of frequencies? An organized system of notes, breaks, and rhythm. A meaningful expression of sound? Where does it end? How does it begin? What makes a sound right, or wrong? All these questions are answered with something I can call musical morphology. We could ask these same questions about language. What is a word or a sentence? A series of vocal sounds? An organized system of frequencies to create meaning? Where does a word end and another begin? Is ‘word’ in the spelling or in the speaking? Questions that many of us thought would be quite simple actually turn out to be very complex. In this post, I would like to explore some of the similarities and differences between language and music and how it is studied and understood.

It all begins with a phoneme or in music, with a note. A phoneme is a sound that can be categorized by quality, much like musical timbre, and is basically comprised of the manner and place of articulation. Is the sound long and sustained, or short and abrupt? Is it formed with the tongue, teeth, lips or throat? This is where much of speech analysis takes place, comparing how these sounds are understood across speakers and manipulating the borders of one phoneme to another. The study of acoustics and timbre allow us to ask questions like what makes a bassoon sound so bassoon-y or why does a piano sound different from a guitar? Instruments are built with specific acoustic structures to produce a unique sound. Strings sound different from brass, which sounds equally different from percussion because the sound is being produced in a very different way. Yet we can still tell the difference between a trombone and a tuba, or a violin and a viola because their resonant chambers take up different amounts of space. We can then take these observations and use them to make decisions about what sound means.

A morphologist studies connected phonemes that share a consistent meaning and they observe the processes that change these units. This is where we introduce semantic concepts to language and music. What makes a good word, or a good chord? Is it structural or meaningful? Does it have emotion or purpose? Does it give the listener information? How is it used and how often? As you could probably guess, morphology is a messy field. Words mean what humans want them to mean and the process of interpretation and translation is just as important as the process of creation itself. Music also means what we want it to mean. It conveys images and emotions with some consistency but also extreme variation. Yet something about music can sound intrinsically right or wrong. I believe this is likely due to the contextual or implicit conditions that make a given sound or utterance appropriate or not.

Prosody is all about context. The events surrounding speech are just as important as the utterance itself and in music, the political, cultural and social context have a strong bearing on interpretation. The way we say things is also just as important as what we say. I could liken this to musical performance. Body language and emotive performance convey intent behind what we say and play. It can be affected by both mood and circumstance as it draws attention to a particular note or section, giving emphasis and energy. Obviously, there is an association with segmentation, the structural framework in which music is broken down. It marks important changes and views the piece with a larger scope and how it behaves as a whole.  In linguistics, we call this syntax; when series of words and sounds behave cohesively. Syntax allows for infinite creativity within a system of rules much like the key signature and meter of a piece of music. Without that structure, the song would sound like complete chaos or nonsense.

I think these similarities in sound analysis are fascinating. Linguistics isn’t the study of language but of human produced sound. Musicology isn’t the study of music but the study of how humans interact with sound. Understanding the human relationship with sound is the key to both these dynamic and versatile fields that will unlock the secrets of an undiscovered mind.



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