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Musician, instructor and producer offering guitar lessons, drum lessons, piano lessons, ukulele lessons and bass lessons.

Scott is the vocalist/guitarist in the Americana Prog Rock band Birds Over Arkansas.

Post #3: Intonation - Music vs Speech Pathology


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Post #3: Intonation - Music vs Speech Pathology

Scott Haskitt

After a piano lesson this week, I spoke with my student's parent, who is a speech pathologist. One thing that my wife can tell you, whenever linguistics, speech pathology or word play comes up in conversation, I get the urge to break out the popcorn and gummi savers; not because they both mimic the symptoms of some sort of aphasia, but talking about this stuff is movie level entertainment for me. Playing with how words sound and look, the relationship between the sounds and the signal path between brain and mouth has always tempted a career change. A couple of old friends of mine recently told me that makes a logophile, and I believe them, because I really like words with lots of vowels and "ph" sounds

Anyway, she mentioned that her daughter was in a class talking about speaking in public, when the teacher addressed something about her "intonation". This reminded her of being taught to sing, and found herself thinking about how these two terms relate in music and speech. So I thought I would explore the meaning of the word in these two different contexts. I suspect it will give me a little different perspective on each, which is most of the joy of thinking about etymology and wordplay. New perspectives on things we use every day keeps us sharp, or distracted... maybe both!

Intonation in music refers to the musician's or instrument's specific and detailed tendency toward pitch accuracy. For example, my Guild D-55 acoustic has fairly accurate intonation over the whole usable fretboard, whereas my Telecaster is a bit sharp on frets 7-12, due to an abnormal dip in the neck in that area, regardless of how I set up the guitar via the bridge or truss rod.

It is important to realize that how we discuss and judge intonation is meaningless without a standard of tuning. There have been many tuning systems used over the centuries, and the one we (in western music) are most accustomed to currently is equal temperament tuning. There are other tuning systems in use today, and each has their advantages and disadvantages when considering different musical repertoire. Equal temperament doesn't give us the mathematically pure intervals within the scale (this is "Just Intonation"), but rather averages these intervals and makes for equally good sounding, or equally bad sounding intervals for general use. Since most of us are used to hearing music played in equal temperament tuning, we are accustomed to hearing music that is not quite in tune, from a mathematically purist standpoint. The point is, if we are to judge intonation of a musician or instrument, we must have a standard in place for any judgment to have meaning. Here's a short video that plays chords and switches between equal temperament (unpure intervals) and just intonation (pure intervals). Note the difference in how in tune, or out of tune each example sounds:

So how does that relate to the use of the word intonation in speech pathology? The word is defined in speech as "the modulation of the voice in speaking". This can be easily explained by the two sentences: 

"Your name is John."

"Your name is John?"

The voice would go normally go down in pitch slightly at the word John in the first sentence, whereas to communicate this in the form of a question, the voice would go up in pitch slightly at the word John in the second sentence. 

Obviously, these two examples are not held to a standard of pitch and intonation to the level of detail involved in musical intonation, but there still has to be some sort of standard by which we can assess the speaker as to whether their intonation communicates the intended meaning clearly, or not.  I'm going to speculate a bit here, as I don't have any formal training in any profession involving speech. If you know what you're talking about and can correct me or help, please comment or email me!

I would say that the standard of intonation necessarily reflects the meaning or emotion intended by the speaker, and is achieved by a certain acceptable range in pitch, relative to the general pitch range of the speaker's voice. There is also some mention of the rhythmic cadence of sentences and how that relates to the perceived meaning. 

The phrase "meaning or emotion" is especially thought provoking to me, because as a musicians, we constantly strive to communicate a meaning or feeling through pitches and rhythms. If your instrument is not well intonated, it becomes very difficult to communicate this meaning or emotion without distracting the listener, or yourself as the performer. The meaning is muddled, confused and not quite as clear. 

So, I want to leave on a thought. Perhaps a way to learn more from this comparison is to try to examine music, more from the perspective of the definition of intonation in speech, rather than the literal interpretation of mathematical intervals and tuning systems. As musicians, how can we "intonate" other aspects of music, such as rhythmic placement, note choice, tempo, intensity, dynamics, arrangement and timbre to communicate the meaning we intend? Certainly, some of this can be conscious and calculated, and some of it is more automatic and subconscious, given a certain level of proficiency and cultural context.