A Musical Approach to Speech Melody

Front Psychol. 2018 Mar 5;9:247. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00247. eCollection 2018.


We present here a musical approach to speech melody, one that takes advantage of the intervallic precision made possible with musical notation. Current phonetic and phonological approaches to speech melody either assign localized pitch targets that impoverish the acoustic details of the pitch contours and/or merely highlight a few salient points of pitch change, ignoring all the rest of the syllables. We present here an alternative model using musical notation, which has the advantage of representing the pitch of all syllables in a sentence as well as permitting a specification of the intervallic excursions among syllables and the potential for group averaging of pitch use across speakers. We tested the validity of this approach by recording native speakers of Canadian English reading unfamiliar test items aloud, spanning from single words to full sentences containing multiple intonational phrases. The fundamental-frequency trajectories of the recorded items were converted from hertz into semitones, averaged across speakers, and transcribed into musical scores of relative pitch. Doing so allowed us to quantify local and global pitch-changes associated with declarative, imperative, and interrogative sentences, and to explore the melodic dynamics of these sentence types. Our basic observation is that speech is atonal. The use of a musical score ultimately has the potential to combine speech rhythm and melody into a unified representation of speech prosody, an important analytical feature that is not found in any current linguistic approach to prosody.

Keywords: language; music; phonetics; phonology; speech melody; speech prosody.