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Poetry and music– the role of tonality

April 1, 2012
Neighbor tones, shown in red, in tonality (mus...

Neighbor tones, shown in red, in tonality (music theory) Français : Broderies, en rouge, en harmonie tonale (théorie de la musique) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both the ancient and medieval worlds, by far the most popular form of literature was poetry. (See also this post on my blog about the Odyssey by Homer) For the modern western person, this overwhelming and ubiquitous popularity often comes across as virtually impossible to fathom. The key to understanding the wide-spread popularity of poetry lies in an aspect of language called tonality— due to which the language would sound to the ear of a modern English speaker as it were being sung or chanted– which most European languages lost in the early modern period. When precisely this aspect of European languages became lost cannot be precisely dated but to at least some degree tonality seems to have remained in the English language at the time of Shakespeare although personally I doubt English at least retained any traces of tonality much beyond that.

Specifically, a speaker of most ancient and medieval languages, including such diverse languages as Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, Old Norse and Chinese, would talk using a baseline pitch. Then the speaker’s voice would rise and fall in pitch according to the tonal accents of the given language while again the words used themselves would largely dictate the tempo. An orator, such as lawyers or politicians in the Roman forum or the Athenian agora, would entertain the populace as well as performing the specific task of defending a client or arguing a policy because typically a trained orator was a virtuoso performer whose style of speaking emphasized the musicality of the language employed. For similar reasons, literature was typically not read silently or by one individual in isolation but rather reading of literature was typically something people did in groups.

Deutsch: Die 9 Anfangsverse der Odyssee von Ho...

Deutsch: Die 9 Anfangsverse der Odyssee von Homer. English: The 9 first verses of Homer's Odyssey. Español: Los 9 primeros versos de la Odisea de Homero. Français : Les 9 premiers vers de L'Odyssée d'Homère. Italiano: I primi 9 versi dell' Odissea di Omero. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poetry specifically was a simple form of music. If one looks at the passage from the Odyssey above as an example, the tempo is set by the meter, iambic pentameter– the meter both ancient Greek and Latin cultures associated with poetry about “important” subjects. The voice linked the five feet of each line and made a slight pause between lines. Then the person reciting the poem would speak with their voice maintaining generally a baseline pitch, but each time an acute accent occurs (a short line above a vowel tilted to the right) the voice would rise half a step (i.e., a half-tone) on that word. Likewise whenever a grav accent occurs (a short line above a vowel tilted to the left) the voice would fall half a step in tone. Finally whenever a circumflex accent (the little half circles) occurs, the speaker’s voice would first rise and then fall by half a tone. Each vowel meanwhile would be held for a specific amount of time, depending on whether the vowel was long or short. Thus, Greek poetry had all the characteristic elements of music. Each language had its own tunes and rhythms, typified by its various meters.

So how does a modern reader appreciate this aspect of ancient, medieval and very early modern poetry? The best way is to mentally associate a tune with the poetry, one that fits the meter and more importantly that one enjoys. I’ve often heard the legend that any Emily Dickinson poem can be set to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas, but the people I’ve heard it from usually dislike like both the poet and the song. Of course ideal is if one can imagine mentally or aloud the actual musical properties of the language itself.


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