12. November 2018

Poetic speech melody: A crucial link between music and language

Research on the interface of music and poetic language has extensively investigated similarities and differences of musical meter, poetic meter, and the rhythm of ordinary speech, but not considered a potential counterpart of musical melody in the language of poetry. Moreover, linguistic research on melodic contours in natural language has remained limited to single phrases and specific speech acts, such as the rising prosodic contour of questions. Our study on poetic speech melody is the first to go beyond these limitations. We phonetically analyzed recitations of entire poems by multiple speakers to trace potentially converging contours of pitch and duration values across all stanzas that could be interpreted as inherent textual properties. 

Results show that stanzas of individual poems indeed feature––across a multitude of recitations––distinct recurrent pitch and duration contours, just like genuine songs and other pieces of music. Moreover, the higher the poem-specific autocorrelation score was for melodic recurrence across stanzas, the higher were also the ratings for subjectively perceived melodiousness as spontaneously reported by listeners. Comparing poems which had been set to music with poems which had not yielded additional evidence for our construct of a genuine poetic speech melody: composers had clearly preferred the poems that score highly on our statistical measure for prosodic melodiousness. 

Importantly, the recurrent contours of poetic speech melodies are neither limited to repetitions of specific patterns of syntactic prosody nor to recitations by individual speakers. Rather, they are an inherent musical gestaltproperty emerging from the art of selecting and combining words to form poetic stanzas. Our discovery has great potential for deepening the understanding of the affinities of music and language.


Original Publication:

Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Knoop, C. A., & Scharinger, M. (2018). Poetic Speech Melody: A Crucial Link Between Music and Language. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0205980. doi: 10.1371/ journal.pone.0205980


Prof. Dr. Winfried Menninghaus
Assistentin: Martina Wülfert 
Tel.: +49 69 8300 479 101
E-Mail: martina.wuelfert@ae.mpg.de