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Historical linguistics for music

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Befuddled:
I have a question I would like answered because I'm not sure how much of it is based around my own cultural chauvinism. Has there ever been an attempt to map out the historical linguistics of music? I ask this because when I listen to ancient or even pre-modern Chinese music, quite frankly, I don't get it. It doesn't resonate with me at all. In fact to me it barely sounds like music. But if I listen to ancient Greek music, like, say, the Song of Seikilos, I get it. I assume that this is due to the fact that ancient Greek music is the foundation for my Western musical understanding. Heck, the word "music" is ancient Greek. On the other hand, even the songs of humpback whales seem to resonate with us on some level.

Could there possibly be an equivalent of "mutual intelligibility" in music?  Or is music truly a universal language? One problem with this question I realise is that Western music has so totally taken over the planet in the last 200 years that it may be impossible to find anyone who hasn't been inculcated to it to some degree.

FlatAssembler:
Well, you know, we can reconstruct the Indo-European accent, so we can tell what the rhythm used to be. Ancient poetry was a kind of what's today the Hip-Hop music, you know.

Daniel:
I don't know of any research within linguistics about music historically.* I'm sure there is some in music studies, though.

By "historical linguistics" do you mean comparative linguistics / typology?

Although the question is interesting, the parallels are not too strong.

Historical linguistics relies on the fact that languages can be compared and their proto-languages reconstructed based on systematic changes. I don't see how that would work with music, partly because music is so creative within short periods. Getting from modern rap, or country, or death metal back to Greek traditional music seems difficult. On the other hand, perhaps yes there are some features that are distinct from Chinese music (traditional and modern). Or maybe you're just comparing apples and oranges: Chinese music is a narrower category (as far as I know) than Western music as a whole, since you're not talking only about Greek music. Instead you could for example look at all of 'Eastern' music (e.g, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). But I'm not sure what that comparison would accomplish aside from you finding your personal preferences in world music.

Still, you may be right that in some sense your ears are expecting something more Greek-like than Chinese-like. The same could be said for philosophy (or food!), though. And it's hard to compare that directly to linguistics either. So in short, I think this is more of an issue of culture in a general sense than a close parallel to language more narrowly.

Finally, one important similarity is that language is passed on culturally from one generation to the next-- technically 'cultural transmission'. And the same could be said for music (as well as philosophy, food, etc.). But music is not as directly 'copied' from generation to generation as music. Still, technically speaking, the analogy fits in the sense that language is not actually copied but immitated with the grammar re-invented by children each generation, and never perfectly. But much more closely than with music. Just imagine if each new song had to be 'mutually intelligible' with the previous one! (Whatever that would mean.) So the comparison is more like "Western accent" vs. "Eastern accent", and I'm not sure what that would really mean. The way Greek sounds (and Chinese doesn't). And same for the music.

--
*There is some research comparing music and language-- from bird songs (as parallel to human children learning languages) to how music may also be structured with recursive/hierarchical 'syntax'. You could try to expand on this in a broader comparison, but I'm unaware of any of that research being from a historical perspective.

EliteoftheRad:
Hey, there! Great question. I have a masters in ethnomusicology, so I hope I can be of some help.

The origins of music has long been a focus of inquiry in musicology/ethnomusicology, which concerns itself with all the music systems of the world and their relationship to culture and society. (cf. Carl Stumpf's "The Origins of Music": https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-origins-of-music-9780199695737?cc=us&lang=en&). However, the focus nowadays is on music universals. Why? Well, one big reason comes from the question: What is music? The answer seems obvious until you do cross-cultural analysis. What we in the West consider music, i.e. something akin to "sound art" for the purpose of artistic expression, is not a universal cultural phenomenon. Whereas the definition of language is already firmly established and clear-cut, this is not so for music. Thus, a "historical linguistics of music" would be more difficult than plain old historical linguistics, though some have certainly tried (an endeavor in this sort of vein was Alan Lomax's "cantometrics," which sought to classify the world's vocal music into a taxonomy of communications style: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantometrics).

Anyway, notwithstanding the difficulty of placing world music systems into a historical taxonomy, an area of study that I think you would find enlightening is organology, which catalogs the world's instruments and traces their historical relationships and development. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organology).

Lastly, if you would like to know why Chinese music, for example, sounds so different from Western music, then there's really no other way of knowing except researching the history of Chinese music and Chinese thought concerning music, and then doing the same for Western music. Probably somewhere along the way, you'll come across an author who has tried answering why they have developed in such different ways, but that is unfortunately out of my area of expertise.

Also, for what it's worth, contrary to Daniel's assumption that "[g]etting from modern rap, or country, or death metal back to Greek traditional music seems difficult," it really isn't that difficult, because those three former systems are unrelated to traditional Greek music, save for the fact that ancient Greek thought on music has been influential in the development of Western thought on music, and Western music is the overarching music-cultural matrix into which rap, country, and death metal were born. Anyway, a university "intro to music" or "world music" textbook could help provide a more detailed answer.

I hope this helps!

Daniel:

--- Quote ---Also, for what it's worth, contrary to Daniel's assumption that "[g]etting from modern rap, or country, or death metal back to Greek traditional music seems difficult," it really isn't that difficult, because those three former systems are unrelated to traditional Greek music, save for the fact that ancient Greek thought on music has been influential in the development of Western thought on music, and Western music is the overarching music-cultural matrix into which rap, country, and death metal were born
--- End quote ---
I don't disagree! What I meant to point out is the contrast between historical linguistics and music history, where the languages can actually be traced back to a common origin (Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor of Greek, English and various other European languages). There's no direct parallel for music as far as I'm aware. As you say, they can't be traced back directly to any common ancestor. That's why the historical linguistics approach doesn't seem to apply directly. You can document how the different musical traditions came about (and how they are culturally related), but you cannot look at a song and then actually attempt to reconstruct how it was inherited generation by generation from some particular ancient song.

Thanks for adding your comments and perspective to this discussion. Helpful because the rest of us here only know the linguistics half of things well!

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