When music ‘speaks’

Dùndún drumming is an oral tradition among the Yorùbá peoples of Western Africa which involves a special type of drum that, when used properly, can mimic the unique patterns and sounds of Yorùbá speech. So close is the resemblance that the instrument is sometimes referred to as the “talking drum”.

Now, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Communication shows that there is a high degree of acoustic correlation between the talking drums and the spoken language; the drums really can be used to convey speech, a phenomenon known as “speech surrogacy”.

The new research was led by Cecilia Durojaye, a musicologist affiliated with the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, US. Durojaye’s 2020 doctoral thesis on the dùndún drum at the University of Cape Town won the African Studies Review 2020 annual prize for the best Africa-based doctoral dissertation.

The Yoruba DUNDUN Talking drum ensemble.

Together with her team, Durojaye analysed and compared 30 spoken and sung verbal snippets against corresponding drum and song excerpts, and found that the dùndún’s mimicry is highly accurate, conveying temporal characteristics and patterns of intensity unique to the language. The authors note that the drum’s fidelity to Yorùbá speech decreases when it’s practised in a musical – rather than a “talking” – mode or context.

The study involved comparing the timing patterns between recorded drum excerpts and clips of speech and song from Yorùbá vocal performers and professional drummers. The researchers also extracted details on frequency and intensity of the recordings to understand the structural commonalities in these different forms of communication.

The intimate link between music and speech

Durojaye says the team’s work demonstrates the importance of incorporating non-Western cultures into research around how humans process both music and speech, and how they are linked.

“These kinds of multicultural findings are useful for considering deeper relationships and understanding of types of auditory communication and the evolution of language and music,” she says. “The talking drum is unique in that it has a foot in both language and music camps, and because its existence reminds us of the thin boundary between speech and music.”

While the talking drum is specific to the Yorùbá language, speech surrogacy is found across cultures. For example, Asante ivory trumpeters from Ghana are found to mimic the Asante Twi language using their trumpets, and Ìgbò ọ̀jà flute playing is found to be an effective surrogate for the Ìgbò language. This language surrogacy is generally only interpretable to people embedded within the culture, and often cannot be conveyed across dialects.

Durojaye says speech surrogacy can be used to carry oral histories and recite poetry and proverbs.

“Through musical instruments like these drums, one can know the history of a particular culture or a form of knowledge dissemination, as well as aspects of how the people think, their belief systems and values, and what is likely important to them,” she says.

But she insists there’s much work still to be done to understand how the drumming can encode language through sound.

“Our study, which focuses on the acoustic properties of spoken, sung and drummed forms, represents one of the first steps towards understanding these various structures,” Durojaye says. “We continue to explore this unique instrument, which has the potential for enhancing our understanding of music and language processing, especially from a non-Western perspective.”

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