SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

Tonal categories and combinatoriality in African song

Thomas Pooley (University of South Africa)

Date: 24 October 2017Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 24 October 2017Time: 6:45 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G52

Type of Event: Seminar


This paper considers a theoretical problem in the study of prosody. In Sub-Saharan Africa, tone languages play an important role in the structure of song melody (with melody defined as a set of pitches patterned in time and tonality). How do speech tone and melody interact in song? To study this phenomenon, musicologists and linguists have compared the direction of pitch movement in melody with the direction of pitch movement in the tones of speech. The focus has been on how and when melody ‘violates’ the action of speech tones, and to what effect. But descriptions of this sort do not take account of the underlying structures of the two systems. Speech tones function differently to the pitch classes of melody. Despite the fact that both are embedded in the same pitch signal, the tonal categories we infer for reach are different in kind. Speech tones have been characterized primarily by distinctions in relative pitch height. In melody, patterns of absolute pitches are the basis for the combinatoriality of musical systems of tonality. These are predicated on the hierarchical ordering of pitch space. There is no equivalent to this structure in linguistic pitch space. Speech tones occupy a restricted range and are semi-autonomous from their tone-bearing units. Melodic pitches, on the other hand, seem to be constrained only by the action of speech tones. To arrive at a formal explanation of the relationship between speech tone and melody we need to understand how it is that their respective tonal categories interact and are related to their tone-bearing units. I consider the theoretical implications using examples from the literature, and a case study of Zulu.

About the speaker

Thomas Pooley is senior lecturer in musicology at the University of South Africa where he was head of music studies from 2014 to 2016. Thomas studied musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand, and holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is working on an interdisciplinary study titled ‘Melody as Prosody’ that integrates theory and method in music cognition and ethnomusicology with phonetics and phonology. Current field research focuses on genres of Zulu song, dance and praise poetry (isicathamiya, umaskandi, and choral dance songs). Thomas has presented his research in Canada, Finland, France, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. He has published articles in African Music, Critical Arts, Musicus, South African Journal of Humanities, and South African Music Studies, and a book chapter in the edited volume Topicality of Musical Universals (ed. J-L. Leroy, 2013).

This seminar is held in conjunction between Music and the Department of Linguistics.

Please note room and time change for this week only!