Sunday, 18 April 2010

On speaking music

A correspondent writes to ask if singing is ever used in speech. She isn't thinking of intonation, sometimes described in a metaphorical way as the musical property of speech - ‘metaphorical’, of course, because our voices don't need to be tuned to concert pitch before we begin a conversation. She has in mind something rather less obvious - musical quotations or catch-phrases, where a musical extract is given a generalized linguistic interpretation.

Yes, there are instances. I've heard people sometimes say Hallejuah! when a satisfactory outcome has been achieved, but instead of saying it they sing it as the opening bars of the chorus from Handel's Messiah. I can't think of many like that. Rather more common is the vocal rendition of orchestral fragments. A contemporary example is the theme from Jaws. The jocular expression of an approaching dangerous social situation is often conveyed by people sounding out its ominous low-pitched glissando quavers. It forms part of a dialogue that is otherwise speech, and it's meant to be judged by the same standards. Nobody thinks of it as an attempt to artistically render the original musical score.

I've collected several examples of this kind in conversational settings: the theme from the Twilight Zone, Dr Who, Dragnet, the shower-room scene in Psycho, Laurel and Hardy’s clumsy walk music, the riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The extract is usually highly stereotyped and brief. It may be just a couple of notes. Someone who arrives in a room with something special to show may accompany it with ‘Ta-raa’, or the fanfare from a racecourse. I've heard people use the whistled motif from Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western films and the chase music from a Keystone Kops film. Devotees of The Prisoner cult TV series (the original one, not the Hollywood remake) introduce its brief musical motifs into their speech to the point of boredom. TV ads can prompt the use of a tune. I'd be interested to hear of other cases.

What is linguistically interesting is that some of these excerpts make sense even if the participants have never encountered (or have forgotten) the original version. The Jaws theme, for example, has taken on a life of its own - a musical idiom expressing mock danger. In such cases, the semantic interpretation is clear. On the other hand, in cases such as the Dr Who theme, the function seems to be pragmatic rather than semantic - to build rapport among people who have shared a cultural experience. Some of the examples may be very transient, therefore, and (as in the case of TV ads) may not make sense outside of the regional setting in which they were first heard.

Phoneticians have problems with these things. They aren't easy to transcribe, not least because they use an absolute musical scale, whereas speech uses a relativistic scale. It doesn't make sense to think of people as speaking 'out of tune' (though some prosodic disorders in speech pathology might aptly be described in that way). Try transcribing the theme from Jaws, and you'll see the problem straight away.

16 comments:

Fran said...

There's also that jokey thing where people whistle a tune when they're trying to say 'wasn't me, wasn't me, I know nothing about it, not guilty' and they accompany it by looking around.

David Crosbie said...

In what is sometimes called 'folk preaching', in White congregations as well as Black, it is not unknown for a sermon delivery to change first into a regular metric rhythm, then into a chant centred on a single musical pitch and finally into a melodic phrase.

The best example I can think of is the Easter sermon by 'Sin Killer' Griffin recorded in a Texas penitentiary and released on on the Library of Congress record Negro Religious Songs and Services. This was recently reissued by Rounder Records, but is currently out of print.

The shift to singing is not planned, because the sermon text is planned only in outline. Bruce Rosenberg wrote a book on it: The Art of the American Folk Preacher.

mollymooly said...

Would you count percussion: "boom boom" or "badoom-tchh" after a joke, in imitation of the drummer accompanying a vaudeville stand-up.

Not sure if the Mafioso's "bada boom bada bing" counts, or the British /ˈdəːdə ˌdə/; these seem more like "yadda yadda yadda".

DC said...

I guess so (re boom boom etc), in that the intonation and rhythm are fixed. Yadda... is clearly non-musical in origin. There are bound to be intermediate cases. Interesting...

DC said...

David: This is a different phenomenon, basically an extension of the prosodic system, though I can imagine it might segue into musical quotations. The same thing happens in Welsh 'hwyl' preaching. I refer to Bruce Rosenberg's work in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.

Mohammed UK said...

The example that comes to mind is the rhythmical and almost musical reading of the quran (koran). They have competitions for this. Now it is actually not permissible to "sing" the quran, but where do you draw the line?
Examples:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBgVD2xoqy4
and
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBxQWgk2Ol8

Does this compare with the folk preaching (David Crosbie)? There are similar "shifts to singing" in Islamic sermons too, often to woo the audience (and extract maximum donations - cynical aside). Reminds me of course of "Brother Lee, Brother Lee, Brother Lee Love" - Kenny Everett (with big hands)

Mohammed UK said...

Where does wolf-whistling sit?

DC said...

This is also different. Communicative whistling is usually considered a language surrogate - something which replaces normal language rather than operating within it. It shares some properties with interjections.

Virginia said...

This is a little odd, but I myself have taken recently to singing lyrics to songs that are applicable to a situation.

For instance, I'm walking outside with a friend, who comments "It's so bright out here, I should've worn sunglasses," to which I reply with the classic Bruce Springsteen lyrics (sung) "Blinded by the light..."

While this quirky habit is a recent trend in my own way of speaking, I have to imagine I'm not the first to have incorporated sung lyrics into my speech.

DC said...

Nice example. I suspect this is very common.

Harry Campbell said...

The melody "Hearts and Flowers" would be another (sarcastic mockery of someone's plea for sympathy).

Where should we classify things like the little taunting tune which is often claimed to be "universal" or at least widespread across cultures? Hard to describe it in words but in musical terms it's in six-eight time and goes down a minor third and up a fifth before repeating the first two pitches. "Nah-na nah-na nah nah!"

While its pitches are fixed (relative to each other), in other words it is an actual tune, it's not a musical quotation or reference to anything, which would seem to make it more linguistic than most cases discussed here.

DC said...

I call things like cat-calls 'stylized tunes' (in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, p. 175). Anything sing-song falls into this category, such as the calling intonation of 'Come and ge-et it'.

outerhoard said...

Seeing as you've mentioned the Doctor Who theme, I'll mention that as children, I and others used a fragment of it to signify "cliffhanger ending" in a story sequelling game we played. (The stories had nothing to do with Doctor Who characters.)

OliP said...

There's a great joke related to this post (obviously less effective written than spoken):

Beethoven's wife is getting really fed up with his paying no attention to her, so, one day she confronts him, saying, "I can't stand it any more! I'm leaving you for a man who pays me some attention!".

Beethoven is distraught at this news. He turns to his wife and pleads, "Don't leave, all my music is dedicated to you, you're my inspiration!".

At this Beethoven's wife sneers, and says "Inspiration! Ha-ha-ha-haaa!"

[Ha-ha-ha-haaa should be a reasonable rendition of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth : D, if you can manage it whilst laughing]

Makes me laugh just typing it...

Mohammed UK said...

I just read this on BBC website, which seemed quite apt... Remember Pearl & Dean (you've started singing the theme in your mind, haven't you?)?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8638701.stm

crypticpuzzler said...

This reminds me of how attempts to spell the nonverbal sounds that are used to express emotion eventually result in people saying what the letters actually spell.

Examples: tsk tsk is often said "tisk tisk" (instead of that sound you make pressing your teeth together and pulling your tongue smartly away from them. Impossible to render in a word!).

I also hear "brrr" said "burr" and the sound of disgust, "ugh," is pronounced "ugg" instead of the throat-clearing noise "ugh" is meant to represent.

Ahem is another, and I think pshaw is too, but I only ever hear it used humorously: Oh pshaw!