Most people don’t use the words phoneme and morpheme every day, but I remember vividly a time when I did. In fact, those words were vital to me when I experimented with new ways to teach students to read tonal notation. I want to define phoneme, morpheme, and other linguistic terms for you up front, so we’ll have a common vocabulary. Here is a chart showing the linguistic terms you will see in this blogpost, their musical counterparts, and their definitions. (If you want more information about these terms, you can find three sources at the bottom of this post.)
Linguistic Units and Their Musical Counterparts
|LINGUISTIC UNIT||MUSICAL UNIT|
|Phoneme—A minimal speech sound in language (as in the sounds /d/ and /t/ in the words bid and bit).||An isolated pitch.|
|Morpheme—A minimal, meaningful linguistic unit. (You’ll see examples further down this column.)||A whole, functional pattern, or a single pitch within a functional pattern.|
|Free Morpheme—A morpheme that can occur by itself as a whole word (as in the word chill).||A whole, functional pattern.|
|Bound Morpheme— a word-part that cannot be broken into smaller meaningful units (as in the suffix y).||A single pitch within a functional pattern.|
|Inflectional-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that provides further information about an existing word (as in the suffix y that changes chill into chilly).||A single pitch that is part of a pattern with one unambiguous harmonic function (such as a tonic major pattern).|
|Derivational-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that, when attached to a root-word, creates an entirely new word (as in the suffix ing that changes chill into chilling).||A single pitch that is part of a pattern with ambiguous functions (such as a chromatic pattern).|
I hope you agree with me that these words are not all that formidable. But it might take you some time to wrap your head around them. (It took me several weeks!) I’ll talk about each term, and its musical counterpart, one by one.
In her book Teach Yourself Linguistics, Jean Aitchison defines a phoneme as “the smallest segment of sound that can distinguish two words.” For example, the sounds /d/ and /t/ in the words bid and bit are phonemes.
Individual pitches are analogous to phonemes in that you can aurally distinguish one from another, just as you can distinguish the sounds /d/ and /t/ from one another. For example, you can hear that the pitch A and the pitch A sharp shown below are different. (And it makes sense that people from cultures in which music consists of quarter tones and microtones will discern differences even more acutely.)
Because the pitch/phoneme analogy doesn’t hold up for long, I want to move on fairly quickly to more fruitful comparisons. Here’s how it comes apart. The sound of the pitch A in the two patterns shown below remains constant despite the change in context; and, in fact, it remains constant across all examples of music notation. But phonemes are another matter; they’re not nearly so reliable. The letter [g] may symbolize two distinct phonemes depending on whether you use it in the word sag or sage. Here’s another example: The letter [s] in the word house symbolizes two different phonemes in the sentence I will buy a house in which I will house all my belongings.
Where does that leave us? In a previous blogpost, I wrote about poor analogies that give us little insight into music and language. I showed that the note/letter analogy is unsustainable, and that the pattern/word analogy is equally poor. Now, I’ve made the case that the pitch/phoneme analogy is just as flimsy—but it’s different from the other comparisons in at least one way: we’re using a precise linguistic term phoneme instead of imprecise terms like letter and word.
I want to go on using linguistic terms by talking about morphemes, minimal meaningful sound units in language. And here, we come to an analogy that not only holds up, but is the mother-load of all music/language analogies! Morphemes are analogous to functional tonal patterns and to pitches within patterns.
Don’t let that last sentence throw you! Morphemes and tonal patterns have a great deal in common. And by understanding morphemes, we can better understand patterns, and the pitches they’re made of.
Free and Bound Morphemes
There are two kinds of morphemes: free and bound. A free morpheme is a self-contained word that you can’t break into smaller, meaningful units. A bound morpheme is a word-part that has no meaning by itself, but takes on meaning when you attach it to a word. The last two sentences cry out for an example, so here is one. I wish I could take credit for creating the sentence you see below, but I found it (in slightly longer form) in Aitchison’s book on page 54: The albatross chanted a dreamy lullaby.
Here we have a sentence made up of free morphemes (1, 2, 5, 8), bound morphemes (4, 7), and root words (3, 6)
I know what you’re thinking. In the chart at the top of this post, I didn’t explain what root words are. True, because I don’t think they have a musical counterpart. Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.
What exactly is a root word? Typically, a word that consists of two or more morphemes has a root, which Haspelmath defines as “the base of a word that cannot be analyzed any further into constituent morphemes” (p. 19). I prefer the definition offered by Chall and Popp; theirs is more direct. To them, a root word is “the simplest form of a word when all prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings have been stripped away” (p. 156).
Here’s where things get a bit tricky: Words are not roots until you attach prefixes or suffixes to them. So then, the words chant and dream are free morphemes if you use them without prefixes or suffixes, as in the sentence “I chant in my dream.” The words chant and dream become roots when they function as the base of the words chanted and dreamy.
Before I leave the topic of root words, here’s one more thing to think about: while all roots may function as free morphemes, not all free morphemes are roots. Thus, the word the—a word you’d never encounter with a prefix, suffix or inflectional ending—is always a free morpheme, never a root.
You won’t see an analogy between patterns and root words for one simple reason: there is none. Tonal patterns, as I see it, have no roots; they seem to be made of nothing but bound morphemes. In other words, each pitch in a pattern contributes roughly equally to its function. Take a look at the pattern shown below.
The pitches C and F are each bound to the pitch A. If you remove the pitches C and F from the pattern, you’re left with the single pitch A. But is that pitch the root of the original pattern? Not at all. On its own, the single pitch A has no tonal function. In fact, if you remove any two pitches from that pattern, the remaining pitch has no discernible function.
A Brief Interlude
Before I press on, I want to bring up an important point. From a linguistic point of view, you can look at tonal patterns two ways, and each way is legitimate:
- A single tonal pattern is similar to a free morpheme, in that each is a self-contained, meaningful unit. Or…
- A single tonal pattern is made of discrete pitches that, somehow, glom onto each other like bound morphemes, despite having no “root” to hold them together.
Each way of thinking is valid.
If you look back at the chart at the beginning of this post, you’ll see two kinds of bound morphemes. That’s right. Not only are there two kinds of morphemes: free and bound. There are also two kinds of bound morphemes: inflectional and derivational. Here’s where we soar into the stratosphere! Let’s talk about inflectional- and derivational-bound morphemes.
An inflectional-bound morpheme (such as the -ed in chanted) gives you more information about a word, but it doesn’t change the meaning of that word significantly. What is the musical counterpart to an inflectional-bound morpheme? One example is the pitch C sung after the pattern F – A to create the three-pitch pattern F – A – C (which, in the context of F major, is the tonic pattern do-mi-so). If do-mi is tonic major, then the added so gives you even more certainty of the pattern’s… tonicness. The note C (added to F and A) doesn’t change the function of that pattern. In fact, it clarifies the tonic function.
What about derivational-bound morphemes? Let’s say you’re in a movie theater watching a horror film. The theater may be chilly, but the horror film is chilling. Derivational-bound morphemes (such as the -ing in chilling) create not only a new word, but an entirely new meaning! Take a moment to sing the two series of patterns shown below. They are identical, except for the final note.
If you look at the final pattern in Series 2, you’ll see an example of a derivational-bound morpheme in music—the final note D. You expect a cadential pattern in F major, but the pitch D, sung after the notes F and E, creates the submediant deceptive cadence do-ti-la. Or does it? Is that final D, in fact, a deceptive cadence in F major? Or is it the hint of a modulation to d minor? Either could be true.
In short, derivational-bound morphemes are analogous to pitches in tonal patterns that have multiple, often ambiguous functions.
And now for the big question: How does all this help us in real life? Is this just an intellectual game? Far from it. These speculations may help music teachers to understand (finally!) how to teach students to read music notation most effectively.
In a previous blogpost, I talked about the four groups of students who participated in my doctoral study. Here, again, is what the four groups were asked to do:
All 4 groups learned to read (that is, to sing at sight) familiar tonal patterns. One group read whole patterns only; a second group read individual pitches within patterns only; a third group learned to read whole patterns, followed by individual pitches within patterns; and a fourth group learned to read individual pitches within patterns, followed by whole patterns. It was a classic design: one group learned A; another learned B; a third learned A before B; and a fourth learned B before A.
Just to give you a taste of what it’s like to teach students to read individual pitches within patterns, I’ve asked my daughter Celia to sing patterns at sight. Actually, she and I sang the following patterns as a team. Please listen to the audio track below as you follow along with the patterns.
Students in my study had learned only tonic, dominant, and cadential patterns (and not chromatic, multiple, or modulatory patterns), For that reason, the students who read whole patterns, read them as free morphemes; those students who read individual pitches within patterns (just as my daughter Celia did), read them as inflectional-bound morphemes.
This post has been fun to write, mainly because I got to relive the best moment of writing my dissertation—the breakthrough moment when I figured out how to teach tonal reading a whole new way. At no point during my study did I compromise my students’ audiation of pattern functions and tonality. On the contrary, during each moment of each lesson, students learned the musical equivalent of phonics (individual, notated pitches) while still audiating tonal syntax. Triumph!
I mentioned in a previous post that I found no significant difference among the groups. Upsetting? Yes, it was, until I remembered what Carl Sagan once said: “In science, a negative result is not at all the same thing as a failure.” To those MLTers who insist that the best way to teach tonal reading is with whole patterns, I say… maybe not. And to those who insist that students will not learn to notationally audiate if they read individual pitches, I say—absolutely not! As my adviser Darrel Walters put it, “Eric, you kicked the stilts out from under the extremists.”
PS. If you want more information about the linguistic terms I used in this post, here are three sources that I have found particularly helpful:
Aitchison, J. (1999). Teach yourself linguistics. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Chall, J. S. & Popp, H. M. (1996). Teaching and assessing phonics: Why, what, when, how. Cambridge: Educators Publishing Service.
Haspelmath, M. (2002). Understanding morphology. London: Arnold Publishers.