Why is it that when you hum a song, you can play it on the piano or keyboard, but when make a sentence in English, it is impossible to play or transcribe it into notes?

For example: I can play "lift up the trumpet and loud let ring" because it is a song I know, but I can't play a discussion, conversation, and even a ordinary sentence on the keyboard.

I need somebody to explain the difference between conversation and vocal musica and why a conversation or English sentence can not be made into notes unless it becomes a song.

  • 1
    You may be interested in Diana Deutsch's speech to song illusion. You can find more information here at her own website. – Richard Feb 19 '17 at 19:36
  • You might also be interested in 'Silbo Gomero', a transposition from speech to whistling. – Arsak Feb 20 '17 at 8:14
  • This sounds very similar to the question I asked here: music.stackexchange.com/q/45593/9426 which has some good answers. – Brian THOMAS Feb 20 '17 at 12:56

Excellent question!

The piano can only play certain fixed notes in a particular scale, whereas the human voice can hit any frequency within a certain range (or ranges). There are quite large gaps between the frequencies of adjacent notes on a piano, whereas human speech typically involves much subtler frequency variations than the piano is capable of. It would be possible to get closer to a frequency graph of human speech with an instrument that is not restricted to discrete pitches, such as a fretless bass or an Erhu.

Even then, hitting the correct pitches isn't the only requirement - you'd need to be able to articulate the volume envelope of human speech too. Between those two requirements, it's quite tricky to do, as the typical intonation of most human languages involves both subtle and large variations in both pitch and volume.

Of course there is also the timbral aspect, and the fact that human speech involves some unpitched elements - but if you want to match those as well, you probably aren't going to trying to do so on any traditional instrument (other than the human voice itself, of course!)

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Funnily enough, it's just like something I do with students sometimes. We have a (slow) conversation, and put each sentence/phrase into a musical phrase. Question and answer. However, it's not easy to translate everything into musical phrases, because we don't speak in poetry, more like prose, so the end product won't come out in a pure musical way. The rhythm may be there, but the melody won't be, and the metre will often be out.

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