SMT-V: The Society for Music Theory Videocast Journal

SMT-V is the open-access, peer-reviewed video journal of the Society for Music Theory. Founded in 2014, SMT-V publishes video essays that showcase research in music theory in a dynamic, audiovisual format, presented so as to have the potential to engage both specialists within the field as well as interested viewers outside the music theory community. The journal features a supportive and collaborative production process, and publishes three to four videos per year. Read more about SMT-V here.

Latest Issue: 6.5 (August 2020)

Melodic Language & Linguistic Melodies: Text Setting in Ìgbò

Aaron Carter-Ényì (Morehouse College) & Quintina Carter-Ényì (University of Georgia)


Link to notes

There are no other sense-altering aspects of culture that equate with language’s effect on aural perception (hearing). Increased sensitivity to pitch is a cognitive characteristic in the 60% of the world’s ethnolinguistic cultures that speak tone languages (Yip 2002). Lexical tone is a pitch contrast akin to the contour of a melody that distinguishes between words. An example is [íké] (high-high, like a repeated note) and [íkè] (high-low, like a falling interval) which forms a minimal pair between the Ìgbò words for strength and buttocks. Being a tone language speaker also impacts ways of musicking, especially singing. This is the case in sub-Saharan Africa, where “language and music are tied, as if by an umbilical cord” (Agawu 2016:113). A favorite tool for evangelism among 19th- and 20th-century European missionaries in West Africa was to translate European hymn texts into the language of the missionized and teach them to sing the translation to the original hymn tune. An example included in the video is “All hail the power of Jesus’ name” which is often sung to the Coronation hymn tune by Oliver Holden (1792). Unfortunately, early missionaries would translate the texts metrically (to preserve the number of syllables) but had no understanding of the necessary tone.

*Because of the link between lyrics and melody in tone languages, composers of vocal music in tone languages have argued that one should not compose vocal music in isolation from text or vice-versa. In 1974, Laz Ekwueme, a doctoral advisee of Allen Forte, published an article on Ìgbò text setting and harmonization. In addition to parallel harmony, Ekwueme recommends staggering text (as in European polyphony or African call-and-response) and using alliterative sounds (vocables and onomatopoeia) in subordinate voices.

Drawing on field recordings gathered in Nigeria from 2011–2020 by the authors, and commentary by Ekwueme and Dr. Christian Onyeji, this SMT-V article studies the phenomenon of “tone-and-tune” in Ìgbò culture.

  • Compositions by Laz Èkwúèmé, Sam Òjúkwū, Christian Ònyéji, Joshua Úzọ̀ígwē
  • Commentary by Laz Èkwúèmé, Christian Ònyéjì
  • Performances by Ogene Uzodinma, Laz Ekwueme Chorale, Agbani-Nguru Ikorodo, Lagos City Chorale, Elizabeth Ime Ònyéjì, University of Lagos Choir, Morehouse College Glee Club
  • Video scores by Ebruphiyor Omodoro
  • Field recordings and interviews are provided by the Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt), with support from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Fulbright Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Keywords: Igbo, Nigeria, Melody, Harmony, Colonialism



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