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Geography and human song

In the West, a tune often begins with a rising lilt. But music in other parts of the world seems to follow a different pattern. What might this tell us about our musical perceptions?

Graham Pont

MUSICOLOGISTS have long struggled to find underlying structures in human music. The ancient Greeks dreamt of a rigorous mathematical science of melody that would emphasise the rationality of human culture, and also reveal its diversity. Sadly, progress towards this ideal has been slow. But in 1975, Denys Parsons, a scientist then at the British Library, achieved a significant breakthrough. He devised a way of describing a melody simply by its "pitch profile"-the pattern formed by the sequence of steps between each note in turn. Our research, building on Parsons' work, suggests that this pattern can distinguish forms of music from different cultures.
Parsons' Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes contains the pitch profiles, recorded as "up" (a rise in pitch), "down" (a descent in pitch) or "repeat" (no change in pitch), of more than 10 000 classical themes and nearly 4000 popular tunes. He then grouped those melodies with common profiles, enabling a reader to find quickly the title, composer or source of the particular tune in mind.
His classification revealed something unexpected. In a sample of more than 7000 classical themes, he found an intriguing pattern: in the melodies in his sample, the most common initial profile is "up-up' '-that is, the preferred pitch profile is a rising interval from the first to the second note, and from the second note to the third. The next most popular is "up-down"; the least popular is "down-repeat". Parsons enlarged his sample to include a further 3005 classical melodies and 3763 popular songs. For each sample he ranked the nine possible pitch profiles, for the first three notes, in order of frequency. With the opening note marked with an asterisk, the order was:

*UU, *UD, *DU, *DD, *RR, *RU, *UR, *RD, *DR

Parsons announced his discovery in the New Scientist on 24 March 1977, and wondered what musicologists would make of it. Until recently, the answer would have been "very little". Although his directory has received some measure of acceptance, no one has seriously responded to the issues he raised. My colleagues and I at the University of New South Wales have accepted the challenge, and have come up with some interesting results.
We first verified his findings on a much larger sample of Handel's work. Our analysis shows the marked preference for "up" at the first interval, between the first and second notes of Handel's melodies. It also seems to suggest the lack of any marked preferences for either "up" or "down" thereafter, although both are consistently preferred to "repeat". We analysed Parsons' sample of the works of other major composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, with similar results.
Yet while these studies confirm Parsons' original observations, there appears to be a good deal of personal variation in the preferences of different composers. This suggests the possibility of using this approach to identify and quantify precise characteristics in a composer's own melodic preferences-something which Parsons has begun to explore. Science might then at last obtain an objective measure of what the ancient Greek theorists called "ethos"-the social or individual character recognised in typical patterns of pitch or rhythm.
In its present form at least, Parsons' law holds mainly for the first, and sometimes the second, intervals of European melody. The initial direction of the melody, the step from the first note to the second, is statistically the most significant. Parsons has recently found that his test, if extended to the third interval, also reveals a marked preference or the "up" profiles, particularly *UUU, but other workers have yet to confirm the generality of this finding.
Even so, his original discovery is intriguing. Why the marked significance of the first note in a melody? My colleague, Jenny Nevile, has suggested that it may be connected with the way we perceive sounds. Musicologists have long known that if you remove the initial articulation of a vocal or instrumental, so that listener hears only the after-sound, they find it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish one voice or instrument from another. In other words, the recognisable timbre of different voices and instruments is mainly conveyed in the initial speaking, the opening of the sounds. I suspect that both Parsons' finding and this aural significance of the first note are part of the same phenomenon: the role of the initial sounding, in the direction of its pitch as well as timbre, in enabling us to identify a tune.
Stimulated by these speculations, we wondered whether Parsons' law held across history, and across cultures. It could be applied to the most primitive form of musical notation developed in modern Europe-the neumes. These signs arose late in the first millennium, as an aide-mémoire for the singing of liturgical chants. The neumes record only the general direction of a melody, but this is the very feature needed for Parsons' test. Our analysis of the sacred chants in a modern collection, the Liber Usualis, provides dramatic confirmation of Parsons' law (see Figure 1). For the first two intervals of the chant, the frequency of "up-up" is almost as high as that for modern melody. This suggests that Parsons' test has revealed not merely an accidental feature of modern melody, but a fundamental tendency of European intonation. We think that this is one of the most important discoveries ever made in the science of melody.

Figure 1 Ancient Greek musicians, medieval monks and Baroque composers all tended to start their melodies with two rising intervals. Parsons' test seems to have revealed a fundamental preference in the intonation of Western music.

We tried to confirm this finding by looking at 29 melodies preserved in ancient Greek notation-but this sadly limited sample is too small to provide statistically significant data. Yet from what we have, it looks as though the melodies of the ancient Greeks have more in common with medieval chant than they do with modern melody. Further research might shed some light on the much debated origin of Christian chant. The prevailing view today is that Christian chant is largely Jewish in origin, rather than Greek. But would scholars revise their opinions if it were discovered that the oldest examples of traditional or pre-Christian Jewish chant do not share the preferred pitch profile of "up-up"?
Parsons' research raised other important issues: the relationship of Western music with the music of other cultures, and even the origins of human music in the natural world. The further we move from the artificial world of modern musical notation, the nearer we approach the music of nature in which it is often impossible to say where exactly a melody begins or ends, or whether it is moving in discernible "intervals" or even if a cry or vocalisation is a melody at all. Parsons' test might not fit all such situations, but we can validly apply it to the songs of birds that sing in clearly defined intervals, such as the cuckoo with its insistent "up-down" call.
We have begun to explore the universality of Parsons' law in human cultures, by studying the melodies of non-European cultures, or those of western subcultures that have retained some independence from the mainstream. We find that Parsons' test does reveal profound differences. Take, for example, the preferred pitch profiles of Scottish Gaelic songs, derived from three collections made at different times by three independent researchers (see Figure 2). Two of these collections show the marked European preference for the initial rising contour, but the distribution of frequencies for other intervals is radically different from Parsons' European norm (see Figure 3). Similarly, an extensive and reliable collection of Romanian folk music yields an exceptionally high level of the initial rising profile, together with a marked preference for the profiles such as "repeat-up" and "up-repeat" which are very low in Parsons' European scale.

Rebellious Scots: Gaelic songs (left,Figure 2) tend to deviate from the classical European norm (right,Figure 3)mapped by Parsons.

We need one final test to demonstrate the reliability of Parsons' law: can his test produce non-European pitch profiles which are consistently different from the European norm? Without this test, it might be possible to argue that Parsons' findings are culture-dependent-like some intelligence tests that might be reliable for the society that invented them but unreliable for other social groups.
We chose to compare the pitch profiles of the songs collected by Frances Densmore from the remnants of four North American Indian tribes, during the first third of this century. From her observations we derived Figure 4; which leaves no doubt that Parsons' test can meet this final criterion of a general comparative method. it reveals that the traditional melodies in this part of the world favoured initial pitch contours radically different from those that have prevailed in Europe. The initial contour of "up-up" is one of the least common in American Indian songs, whereas the pattern of "repeat-repeat"-fifth in the European list of preference is far and away the most preferred, being found in almost two thirds of the Menominee songs.
A similar pattern of preferences emerges from a recent collection of 84 Peyote songs, melodies coming not from a tribal society but a religious cult that has developed among various surviving groups of North American Indians. Our evidence suggests that the singers of this new cult preserve the characteristic melodic contour of their tribal ancestors.
Songs of the Australian Aborigines show an even higher level of the "repeat-repeat" contour in our analysis of 218 songs of the Pintupi of central Australia (see Figure 5). But what is the true significance of these comparisons? Are they reliable indices of genuine cultural differences?

Hear the difference: American Indians (left, Figure 4) and Australian Aborigines (right, Figure 5) favour "repeat-repeat" intervals

To be sure, researchers will need to evaluate Parsons' test further, and possibly introduce some refinements. But his discovery suggests many exciting possibilities. It could provide a simple way of plotting the distribution of "horizontal" melodies, those with a more or less stable pitch, popular among the native people of North America, Australia and elsewhere-as shown, for example, by fragments from an ancient song of Hawaii and one in the Babylonian liturgy.
These are quite different from another archaic and widespread kind, which the late Curt Sachs called, in his book The Wellsprings of Music, "tumbling strains". This sort of singing takes the form of a leap to a high note followed by descent to a lower level. The examples that follow are from music by the Zuni of New.Mexico, Australian Aborigines, and the Watusi of Africa.
Parsons' data show no significant preference for either form in the beginnings of European melodies, but the preponderance of horizontal tunes is strongly marked in the music of North American Indians, and some Hispanic, Celtic and Gaelic songs. The non-Gaelic songs of Britain show the reverse situation, with the "down-down" more common that "repeat-repeat". This could be a significant discriminator in ethno-musicological and bioacoustic classification For instance, in two small samples of Irish songs, the "repeat-repeat" profile was the one most preferred by Gaelic Irish singers, but was among the least preferred by Anglo-Irish singers. In the classical music of Japan and Korea, the most common pitch profile seems to be "up-down", a preference we have not yet found anywhere else. So the comparative study of pitch profiles could provide a way of mapping the geography of human song, and perhaps the song of other animals too.

Further Reading

Denys Parsons The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes, published by Spencer Brown, Cambridge, 1975. Curt Sacha, edited by Jaap Kunst, The Wellsprings of Music, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1962. (2000)


Dr Graham Pont is senior lecturer in the Centre for Liberal and General Studies at the University of New South Wales. His co-workers in the research reported here are Jenny Nevile, a doctoral student in the Department of Music, and Dr Nigel Nettheim, a research fellow supported by the Australian Research council. This research was funded by the University of New South Wales.





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New Scientist 20 January 1990 File Info: Created 12/4/2002 Updated 26/7/2003  Page Address: