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Common features of South-East Asian music seen through an educational music processor

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


South-East Asian have been interconnected by the land and waters for millenia. Their differences from the West seem to hide their stunning similarities. Their words for “water” and “river” have a common root. For example, from the basics, the Khmer language (non-tonal) and Vietnamese (tonal) belong closely to the same Mon-Khmer branch of Austro-Asiatic family, where non-tonal polysyllabic words turned into monosyllabic words with tones. Their music is described by pitch unit (chữ đàn) rather than one single peak, by phrases and sentences rather than measures, and folk music cannot be meaningful without the poetic lyrics. In one study, the author describes how a phonemic linguistic tone inserting its influence in a folk song melody.
Music and songs can be thought of as linear strings of pitches or syllables from an instrument or the voice of a performer to the ear of a listener. Music and linguistic units, such as pitches and syllables, are inherently not well-tempered. Notating non-western music in western notation has stripped away all unique intrinsic features. Adding these once lost features back to their context, the adjacent pitches and syllables, reveal culturally dependent characteristics of sonic artefacts. These observations lead to a search for a universal music processor.
With the above theoretical basis, the author starts from processing of musical audio files onto common graphic platform of physical sound properties--in Hertz, Decibels, and milliseconds—so that culturally dependent musical units such as notes/pitch units, beats, measures, phrases, chords, and sections can be viewed in separate cultural dependent layers. Syntactic techniques, such as frequency of occurrences and adjacency, can be applied to musical units of pitches, rhythm, musical chords, and song sections.

The investigation begins with an automated notated pitch/intensity contour (nPIC) graph of a sung folk song, on which, a music staff and onsets of the lyric syllables (i.e. words) are identified, wherefrom a unit comes into being: the “syllamelis”, i.e. is either syllabic or melismatic. This allows users to demarcate a music melody using linguistic knowledge; and demarcate linguistic thanh điệu “tone space”, i.e. a unit of tone duration within a syllamelis, using musical knowledge. This is exactly where music and lyric merge. The process is demonstrated by examples from the famous southern “amateur” music, đờn ca tài tử, taking roots in central, royal and northern Vietnamese music as well as ethnic Chamic, Khmer, and minh hương Chinese folk music, to rise into a unique genre thanks to its linguistic features from the mid of the XIXth Century. We will then be able track the complex congruences between (1) two adjacent tone-spaces and their corresponding phonetic tone representations, (2) general speech tone pitches and singers idiolectal interpretations in the song, and (3) performed rung “vibrato” and nhấn “spikes” and the existing contradictory definitions of Vietnamese music modes and airs. The results suggest significant distinct characteristics of folk songs usually reveal in the transitions between music melody pitches and between the end of a tone pitch to the beginning of the next tone pitch. These indeed are features of South East Asian traditional musics.