The Song Remains the Same? The Effect of Oral Transmission on Folk Melodies

by Joshua Albrecht
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Daniel Shanahan
Louisiana State University

AMS-SW Conference, Spring 2015
University of North Texas

Poster Abstract

Oral transmission is notorious for degrading a signal, as commonly seen in the game “Telephone.” Likewise, by comparing “families” of differences for Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” Spitzer (1994) traces the stemma of the song, generalizing four types of changes and hypothesizing that these tendencies are ubiquitous in oral transmission:

In this paper, we directly examine the tendency of orally transmitted folk song excerpts to pentatonicize cadence points through an experimental paradigm we’re calling “Musical Telephone.” The final phrases of eight English and Irish folk melodies were selected, half of which ended with re-do and half of which ended with ti-do. Each penultimate note was then altered using Melodyne to create an alternate version, resulting in sixteen melodies. The experimental hypothesis is that ti-do motion will be changed to re-do significantly more frequently than the reverse.

In this experiment, fourteen teams of four music majors each played Musical Telephone with four of the resulting melodies, balanced between altered and unaltered and re-do and ti-do cadences.

Of 240 total sung melodies, 29 (12%) altered the penultimate pitch. Ti-do motion was changed to re-do motion in 20 (69%) of those instances, significantly higher than chance (p=.04). These results are consistent with the hypothesis, perhaps implicating a statistical learning effect in which re-do cadences supplant ti-do cadences in memory because they are heard more frequently. Alternatively, it may be the case that melodies that descend to the final are more natural to sing because of physiological tendencies in which sub-glottal air pressure is reduced at the ends of phrases (T’Hart et al., 1990).

Selected Bibliography:

Spitzer, John. “Oh! Susanna: Oral Transmission and Tune Transformation.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 47 (1994): 90-136.
T’Hart, J., Collier, R., & Cohen, A. A Perceptual Study of Intonation: An Experimental-Phonetic Approach to Speech Melody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.
Weiss, M.W., Trehub, S.E., & Schellenberg, E.G. (2012). “Something in the Way She Sings: Enhanced Memory for Vocal Melodies.” Psychological Science, 23 (2012): 1074-1078.



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