How to translate a word into music ?
31 March 2020

How to translate a word into music ?

“Where words leave off, music begins” (H. Heine)

It is common to refer to music as a universal language. Yet, which said langage said vocabulary, words that give a meaning. We even speak sometimes about the music of words, but have we ever thought about a word in music? Is there a method to translate a spoken language into a musical one?

Notes : words for sounds

Poetic, emotional, energetic, many are the feelings provided by music, based only on three parameters : rythm, intensity, pitch. Usually, we break down this later into a scale of nots from the low to the high register. To name these notes, two main systems exist:

Les différents systèmes de notation musicale : solfégique et alphabétique

Historically, it is the alphabetical system that preexists since it was already present during Greek and Roman Antiquity, whereas the solfegic system only appeared in the 11th century with the Italian monk Guy d’Arezzo.

To code musical words

At the end, these two systems designate the same thing : the note names. It is only a code. But some composers have had fun playing with this code to hide messages in their scores and, somehow, put words in music.

All we have to do is create a form of musical alphabet from the alphabetical system. The simplest alphabet would be, for instance, built from the English model, as follows:

Gamme alphabétique : les lettres en notes de musique

The same way paintors sign their paintings, some composers took advantage of the alphabetical system to create their own musical signature. The most famous example known if the B-A-C-H pattern, used by Johann Sebastian Bach, such as in his masterpiece The Art of Fugue.

Other composers have used this system to create combinations of notes to pay tribute to other artistics personnalities. It is the case of Maurice Ravel in his Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909) based on the musical alphabet inspired by the German system:

that creates :

The note designation system is therefore a simple code, well understood by composers. They do not hesitate to play with this code to find new sources of inspiration.

Since this is a game, why not also use it to add a touch of lightness to this serious context?

Here our pianist Camille Taver translate into music the words C-O-R-O-N-A and H-O-S-P-I-T-A-L in support of the nursing staff.


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