In tone languages, for example Vietnamese and Cantonese and the African languages Yoruba and Ibe, tone is phonemic, affecting the lexical or grammatical meaning of a word. Languages in which tones occur within a fixed range are called register tone languages. Yoruba is a West African tine language with three different levels of tone or bands: high band, mid band, and low band. Yoruba music developed naturally out of the tonal inflections of speech.

Vowel systems in African languages, Turkish, Finnish, Hungarian, and Mongolian have patterns of vowels that are classified into harmonic sets – some vowels can’t co-exist in the same words with other vowels. Vowel systems of these languages have nine or ten different vowels, in two harmony sets. Often the vowels are divided into harmony / disharmony on the basis of the place of articulation (front, back etc.)

According to the patterns of vowel harmony in Mongolian, a work may contain only the vowels [a], ë or only. The vowels [i] and ….. are neutral since they follow all vowels and can precede any vowel in a word. In DuoLuo, a language of Kenya, the vowels of one harmony set are respectively higher than the corresponding vowels of the other set and have been labeled impressionistically as hollow, breathy, or muffled. The other, relatively lower set has the impressionistic qualities of hard, creaky, or brassy.

Conclusions and Speculations

Exploring how sounds are assembled in language (syntax minus the level of meaning), and the underlying psychological structures of speech perception could point to an understanding of how sound streams are formed; how sounds are grouped in their original context. The psychological structures underlying the perception of speech have implications for the creation of sound structures in music with timbre as a form-determining element. A compositional syntax could be developed through the creation of groups and sub-groups of similar sounds, based on their acoustic properties. An understanding of the spectral morphologies of speech could also be applied to the structural organization of all sound – with language as a perceptual model.

In Winter Trees and Stoicheia, I was working with the acoustic qualities of vowels and combining vocal and instrumental sounds to create a fusion of timbre. Consonants were used primarily for their percussive quality and noise content. It would be interesting to explore consonants as time markers, to create rhythmic structures. Sound patterns could be developed based on the system of linguistic oppositions, which organizes language sounds in terms of functions, relations, and values.

Vocal sounds from all languages and vocal music can contribute to create a new sonic vocabulary for an emerging aesthetic in vocal music.


1. Peter Hamel: Through Music To The Self. Colorado, 1976, P.216
2. The size and shape of the mouth and vocal cords control variations in the resonance of several frequencies.
3. Assonance refers to a repetition of vowels, an alternative to rhyme in verse.
4. Sylvia Plath: Winter Trees, London: Faber and Faber, 1971
5. Martin Kevan, Quebec Voices: Three Plays. Robert Wallace editor, (The Dubois play, Don’t Blame the Bedouins is published in this book, translated by Kevan.) Coach house Press, Toronto, 1986.
6. Leon Jacobson, Issues in Vowel Harmony p.187 Robert Vago, Editor. John Bejamins B.V., Amsterdam, 1980.