Beyond harmonicity: Vocal-melodic theories are necessary for studying the global origin of musical scales

Beyond harmonicity: Vocal-melodic theories are necessary for studying the global origin of musical scales

Presenter Name:Elizabeth Phillips

School/Affiliation:McMaster University

Co-Authors:Steven, Brown

Abstract:

The predominant theory of the origin of musical scales comes from the 18th century discovery of the harmonic series and the observation that common musical intervals are similar to the frequency ratios of successive harmonics. This “harmonicity theory” was used as the basis for the early just intonation of Western instruments and later influenced diatonic tuning and theory. However, the most universal and ancestral instrument, the voice, provides significant challenges to harmonicity theory. Much work has shown that the frequencies of sung pitch-classes are widely variable and do not conform to discrete mathematical ratios, and there is ample evidence of non-Western scales which do not abide by just or diatonic tuning. In order to provide evidence for an alternative cross-cultural, vocal-melodic approach to the origins of scales, we analyzed these pitch-class properties (precision and diatonic tuning) in recordings of Dutch folk and Taiwanese indigenous vocal music, relative to Irish folk and Western classical flute music. The instruments produced pitch classes that most closely resembled the predictions of harmonicity theory, whereas the vocal samples, regardless of culture, showed significantly more imprecision and disregard for diatonic tuning. These results suggest that there are significant and possibly universal vocal constraints on pitch-class properties that must be further investigated. By prioritizing the relatively understudied wealth of global vocal music, this and future studies may reveal that vocal constraints are a valid basis for a new cross-cultural theory of the origin of musical scales, one which considers physiological and cultural evolutionary mechanisms rather than a priori mathematical ratios.

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