The music of language and language of music

Daniel Formo, Research Fellow at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Department of Music

The project will explore how prosodic structures of speech can be used as a source for creating music, and the aim is to develop an improvisational foundation for making music that are closely related to the genuine human musicality inherent in spoken language.
The linguistic term “prosody” refers to intonation, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, register, voice quality
– in short all the musical features of speech, and this project is based on the idea that there is a deep connection between how prosody is used to convey (and interpret) meaning in speech and how music works to express whatever it expresses in the esthetic domain. This can be especially apparent in improvised music, where the musical discourse is negotiated in much the same way – and with the same prosodic/musical means – as in a spoken dialogue. These musical means makes for a huge semantic potential in speech, that with or without our knowing can express our states of mind, intentions, expectations, attitudes, relations, feelings and views, which in hermeneutical ways affects how the words we utter are interpreted. In this way the prosody constitutes a communicative level of its own, and in many cases this is where the real communication is going on (just think about the many ways of saying simple words like “yes” or “no” and what they might imply). While it is interesting for linguists to look at how prosody affects discourse and flow of information, it is from a musical point of view interesting to see how these structures also make recognizable patterns in music. The artistic research of this project will revolve around how these musical imprints in speech can be used to make music that conveys some of the same intimacy with human expressiveness that the prosody of speech does. As we find the greatest variation in prosodic expression in different social situations that might call for specific prosodic genres or where certain ways of speaking is part of the message, the project will center on a range of real conversations as source material rather than readings of texts or poems (which constitutes a prosodic genre of its own) to explore and highlight these variations musically. It will also focus mainly on the musical structures of spoken language and not so much the sound of the human voice itself, which is saturated with meaning and identity on so many other levels as well. The topic then, is the relationship between music and speech, and how the “music of everyday speech” – as one linguistic puts it – also can form the basis of meaningful musical structures.

The work can be divided in three parts:
• Develop a set of methods, techniques and tools to extract, abstract and transfer a wide spectrum of prosodic traits from speech in order to structure and generate electroacoustic music.
• Explore ways of using these different prosodic features to make music.
• The main aim is that the research shall result in a repertoire for improvisation, in a kind of
electronic instrument involving the different ways of using speech musically, to be explored through improvised musical dialogues with other performers.

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