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Music comes before speech

Crying, once viewed merely as a distress siren, is now viewed as part of the array of pre-speech sounds that pave the way for future communication. “That’s how language comes into the brain of babies,” Wermke said. “They learn the musical features of the surrounding languages. The music is always first, it’s like a scaffold for the words.”

Which is annoying. Because I’m pretty good at accents. Both code switching in English and picking up the sounds of other languages (I’ve only ever learned, other than schoolboy French, by ear).

But can’t carry a tune even if issued with a tin can to do so in.

14 thoughts on “Music comes before speech”

  1. Well isn’t obvious that crying is the baby’s way of getting attention from mummy ? Chicks cheep, kittens mew, puppies squeal, babies cry.

    I mean come on…

  2. Enjoyed listening to Ian Dury and the Blockheads last night and noted that he’s speaking not singing but he’s speaking as if he was singing. Rex Harrison style if you like. Which makes me think its much more about rhythms than pure tonal accuracy.

  3. Interesting to see that it suggests my howling and whinging might have driven the way I learned to speak.

    But I’m sure that nobody would agree that I bitch and moan a lot these days!!!

  4. Yes, same here. Most accents I can do are pretty good, although it helps a lot to immerse myself in listening for a few minutes. And I can do fairly accurate “take offs” of how people speak – pauses, emphases, and the like. But although I like music, people would wince at my rendering of a song.

    Interestingly, my wife and her family are all the other way around. All talented musicians, mostly earn a living that way, yet their accents are feeble.

  5. There’s a famous Bernstein recording of West Side Story from 1984, with the great tenor José Carreras as Tony. There’s also a film of ‘the making of’ in which Bernstein berates Carreras, because he can’t sing the word “today”, pronouncing it “to-die”, because the diphthong doesn’t exist in Spanish. You’d think that someone who was one of the world’s greatest singers would be easily able to do anything at all with their voice, but no!

  6. The Meissen Bison

    Without a musical ear what you believe to be a “good” foreign language accent may in fact be lamentable yet native speakers are too polite to point this out to you.

  7. I could never understand why Frank Sinatra was so highly rated, seemingly by everyone but me. I though that his singing sounded bloody awful and I have really eclectic tastes in music, rap being the only genre that I really don’t get at all.

  8. There’s an amusement to Sinatra – to other singers his real and outstanding talent was in his phrasing. Exactly that language bit….

  9. ” may in fact be lamentable yet native speakers are too polite to point this out to you.”

    This could be true. Yet I’ve had a Portuguese customs/passport guy launch into a volley of Portuguese at me and appear mystified when I say sorry, I only speak a bit. As he said, “But your accent in Bom Dia made me think you spoke P” etc.

    Still get some things wildly wrong. It’s PapelaRIa not PapelARia, PadaRIa, not PadARia.

  10. Chris M

    You’d be amazed at how many top flight opera singers can’t sing in English or manage any sort of an accent. French, Italian and Spanish are the worst but I’ve also heard some lousy Germanic attempts.
    Nordics and East Europeans seem to manage it fine.

    Sinatra when he was young had ( according to my mum ) a very smooth, deep and sexy voice ( but he was SO ugly, she complained ) and as that abandoned him with age and booze and fags, he accentuated the phrasing, but he retained a strong voice all the way through.

  11. @Tim

    Yes, Hispanics can be easily baffled if you put the stress on the wrong syllable. But Portuguese are just happy if you don’t address them in Castilian. 🙂

  12. High Table comment: someone made the well known claim that all peoples known to anthropology have music. One chap demurred: there were, he said, a couple of tribes in New Guinea who appeared to have no music of any sort.

    A tease? Dunno but he was an expert on New Guinea.

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