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Music, Tone Languages, Nigeria, Yoruba, Igbo


NGA (Nigeria)

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Approximately 60% of the world’s languages are tonal, wherein alterations of pitch change the meaning of words. Two-syllable words in Yorùbá can have as many as five separate meanings, and single- syllable words in Mandarin up to four. Among tone-language speakers, acute pitch sensitivity is developed at an early age as part of language acquisition. The result is that speakers of tone languages are generally more sensitive to pitch than stress-language speakers. For speakers of stress languages, it is difficult to conceive of this other aurality, in which sound is perceived in a different way. But music holds the key, giving insight into tone languages and the cultures that communicate through them.

Not all melodies from tone-language cultures accurately represent the contours of speech, but many folk songs and linguistically-determined melodies do. Such songs are an effective tool for teaching and learning the concepts of spoken pitch contours. Musicians have musical fluency and more pitch- sensitivity than non-musicians, and thus, have a head start in this process. Expressing an interest and developing a modest understanding of the nature of tone languages is an effective outreach for music educators to many under-represented groups in American society, including Native Americans and immigrants from Africa and Asia. Music can illuminate the unique features of the world’s languages and cultures, engaging our broader, global community.

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