Solresol: The universal musical language.
December 11, 2002 11:44 AM   Subscribe

solresol: the universal musical language. There are many artificial or planned languages. Some were created with the hope of universal communication, while others were nearly accidental creations that went from fiction to fact. Solresol remains, to me, one of the most interesting planned languages of all. It contains only the seven signs of the musical scale and isn't spoken as much as it is hummed, sang, whistled or played on an instrument. Once totally obscure, Solresol is making a quiet comeback.
posted by elwoodwiles (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, but does it have its' own movie?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:48 AM on December 11, 2002

Does "contains only the seven signs of the musical scale" imply a restriction to a particular musical system? If so, can it really be considered "the universal musical language"? (honest question, I am woefully ignorant of music theory)
posted by freebird at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2002

Good question freebird. Doesn't Eastern (Oriental) music use a different scale than C for its basis? Does this ring anybody's bells, as it were? I'm asking out of ignorance as well...interesting post elwoodwiles.
posted by rainbaby at 12:17 PM on December 11, 2002

Yes 7 signs is West European. Musical scales show some universality over cultures even if the set pitches (exact notes) are different. For instance pentatonic (Chinese) scales are very widespread.

There are however many major ancient scale systems from other cultures involving.. uh.. weird stuff that doesn't show up in the usual Western classical scale (sorry I'm not a music major). Furthermore in modern music, I mean, not just modern artish music but the music of the masses and of electronic music and experimentation, the the trend has been toward experimentation with .. uh .. alternative music scales. Hehe

btw there are people who are tone deaf. They will be unable to use this system. Too bad for them.

I wonder about the neurological basis for tone deafness. Anyone have input?
posted by firestorm at 12:35 PM on December 11, 2002

not to distract from the link (which i found fascinating), but yes, there are *tons* of non-western scales -- basically, you can make any sort of relationship between sound frequencies that you like and call it a scale, from my understanding (which is little -- music experts, don't hit me!)

here's a short wikipedia entry on scales that contains some information on microtonal scales. hopefully someone with a lot of knowledge on the subject will be able to provide more information.

(from my understanding, microtonal is pretty huge in contemporary academic compositions -- there's only so far you can go with a formal scale, i suppose).
posted by fishfucker at 12:38 PM on December 11, 2002

See, that's the problem with "universal languages" -- nobody even speaks this one yet, and it's already broken down into squabbling over alternative dialects. (You guys are thinking of the pentatonic or heptatonic scales, an interesting mathematical explanation of which can be found here.)

I'd be more concerned about the apparent necessity for perfect pitch: one would be hard pressed to distinguish a polite "Doremi" from the vulgar, conversation-stopping "Remifa."
posted by ook at 12:41 PM on December 11, 2002

Yeah, you're both right, rainbaby and freebird. And on preview, firestorm and fishfucker. Once you get outside the Western world, there are plenty of other musical scales, so it's unfortunately arrogant to call this a universal language. The other side of the argument (the Westerners') is that our musical scale is derived from the harmonic series, the way overtones of a given tone fall in a certain pattern. So, this argument goes, there may be other scales, but they're all arbitrary, and ours is the only real one. It doesn't help matters that the most articulate proponent of this concept was a proto-Nazi (c.1900) named Heinrich Schenker. In short, it's a whole can of worms that should have been avoided. But the solresol concept is certainly interesting.
posted by soyjoy at 12:41 PM on December 11, 2002

ook - Just to clarify, pentatonic and heptatonic scales are usually subsets of our standard 12-note (chromatic) scale. Eastern and other scales are built on entirely different pitch relationships.

Also, your example is unfortunate, as Doremi and Remifa have different intervals and so would sound different (the third is major in Doremi, minor in Remifa). But Doremi and Fasolla would, in the absence of any other context, sound the same.
posted by soyjoy at 12:45 PM on December 11, 2002

Don't forget 12480.
posted by destro at 12:57 PM on December 11, 2002

Heh. You say doremi, I say fasolla... let's call the whole thing off
posted by ook at 12:58 PM on December 11, 2002

And what if you already use Solfege as part of your ear training technique? I'd hate to think what I might be saying to my music students by mistake...
posted by Sangre Azul at 1:20 PM on December 11, 2002

hmmm.... now I see that the 'Universal' modifies 'language', not 'musical'. It's not a language to *describe* music (for which we all agree it would be inadequate), it's a language *using* (western) music as the vehicle. So I don't think it's "arrogant to call this a universal language" - it's not trying to be one, in the sense you mean (and I originally meant). I wonder if someone used to another scale would misinterpret words...maybe it would just come across as a "funny accent"...

So what I want to know is - how do I rhyme in it?
posted by freebird at 2:18 PM on December 11, 2002

probably matching intervals.

Also soyjoy from superficial impression the (usual) pentatonic relationship that I've come across is exactly like the stereotypical Chinese scale.

Although I have not studied Chinese music really, so I don't know if the pentatonic adapted to the Western scale has slight differences or of other Chinese systems save that of course the ancients used their own notation.
posted by firestorm at 2:39 PM on December 11, 2002

lol the "rhyming", as in "poems", is in fact just a different way of naming a technique in composing music (the poem in this language is the music).
posted by firestorm at 2:41 PM on December 11, 2002

Sorry, freebird, but I stand by the word "arrogant." If someone isn't used to our seven-note scale, they can't make sense of it, so the "language" part doesn't work. It's as if you knew Russian (cyrillic) and then were introduced to Esperanto. To learn the language, first you'd have to learn a whole different alphabet (the pitch relationships of our 7-note scale) and then you'd have to know some Latin or another Romance language (solfege, or the patterns formed by different notes in the scale) to even be at the point where everybody else would be starting at square one. If a universal language is one that some people have to learn a different alphabet, an entire vocabulary and new concept of syntax in order to learn, well, then every language is universal.

As to your second question, that's a lot easier.
posted by soyjoy at 2:41 PM on December 11, 2002

Don't we already use sound/tone/timbre/rhythm/pitch to convey extra information?

Seems like its already pretty universal. I ask a question, my voice goes up in pitch...
posted by LoopSouth at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2002

firestorm - the stereotypical Chinese scale is just that. We don't have the intervals available (on conventional Western instruments) to play actual Chinese scales, so we have gotten used to a cartoon version. Chinese music is not limited to one pentatonic scale, anyway. There are hundreds of scales out there in non-Western music, and indeed, the whole concept of grounding music theory in scales, in tones, rather than rhythms is also patently Eurocentric. Man, don't get me started on that.
posted by soyjoy at 2:47 PM on December 11, 2002

Not sure if it's mentioned in any of those links, but there's a chapter on Solresol and its creator in the excellent book Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins, whose site is also worth a look.
posted by staggernation at 2:51 PM on December 11, 2002

Oops... sorry, just saw that the main link is, in fact, that very chapter by Paul Collins. Duh. Anyway, my plug for Paul's site still stands...
posted by staggernation at 2:53 PM on December 11, 2002

There was a really cool article about this in McSwy's #5 that was taken from a book by semi-regular McSwy's contrib Paul Collins called Banvard's Folly: Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck

Always sounded like it would be a cool book, and this link reminded me that I'd wanted to get it, but when I googled for that amazon link just now, I found a less than stellar review of it on MeFier snarkout's blog. On another note, it is positively bizarre how many times I search for things and end up with some type of path-cross with snarkout. Certainly a member of my karass.
posted by jeb at 2:57 PM on December 11, 2002

that sucked
posted by jeb at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2002

Okay, so the tonal part of solresol is based on the European scales--but that doesn't make it imperialistic or whathaveyou--solresol isn't limited to pitches. The article (when read) details a blind man and a deaf man communicating through solresol with a system of finger taps. Solresol can also use colors, numbers, symbols, and just about anything which can be used for a seven letter alphabet.
posted by LimePi at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2002

Right, and this is while I still disgree with Soyjoy's well-intentioned point. If the language *required* you to 'get' the music, then it would be pretty eurocentric. But you don't have to think the scale sounds right to differentiate between tones. And as I understand it, you just need to be able to tell the difference between 7 ordered 'signals' to use the language.

One manifestation of these 7 signals is the tones of a classic western scale, but there could be many others, *and* you don't need to appreciate it as a scale - it's just an ordered list which anyone could learn.

firestorm - what do you mean, that sounds interesting about the rhyming. Did I just miss something in the article?
posted by freebird at 3:28 PM on December 11, 2002

ook: I'd be more concerned about the apparent necessity for perfect pitch: one would be hard pressed to distinguish a polite "Doremi" from the vulgar, conversation-stopping "Remifa."

This reminds me of (spoiler warning) The Moon Moth by Jack Vance.
posted by raygirvan at 4:50 PM on December 11, 2002

Always sounded like it would be a cool book, and this link reminded me that I'd wanted to get it, but when I googled for that amazon link just now, I found a less than stellar review of it on MeFier snarkout's blog.

In fairness, the research Collins did was really impressive, and as I said in my review (which you couldn't read in its entirety, because I screwed it up in Greymatter; mea maxima culpa) I hugely enjoyed his articles in McSwy's. But I felt the collection, when presented as a collection, failed to cohere, and it magnified some of Collins' weaknesses as a writer.

Still, it's a book worth reading. And Solresol is one of the more interesting failures in there, especially as it ties into the larger impulse towards artificial language creation and the intersection of same with vaguely utopian, one-world impulses. (See also Esperanto and the mighty artistic works it spawned.)

On another note, it is positively bizarre how many times I search for things and end up with some type of path-cross with snarkout. Certainly a member of my karass.

We touch soles through our soles mutual interest in historical oddities!
posted by snarkout at 9:38 PM on December 11, 2002

btw there are people who are tone deaf
There are many who think/have been told they are. I haven't found anyone yet who is. I was told once (aged 8) I was - now people pay me to sing...

All this talk of scales and non-Western intonation is interesting. In fact the standardised intonation we use now was unknown in Western Europe until about 300 years ago - many W. European folk traditions still retain slightly different intonation schemes.

The system of intonation which is pretty much ubiquitous now was really a bit of a fudge to allow people who play things like keyboard instruments (which don't allow the subtleties of intonation of, say the human voice) to play most music fairly easily. It's never been accurate, even within Western Scales (see this article), and alternative tunings are a major area of disagreement for early music purists.

One knock on now is that Western instruments (mainly keyboards) are becoming more and more common in the music of other areas. There is a large body of evidence to suggest that many less common 'ethnic' scales are in fact dying out as local musicians get more locked in to the Western intonation. It's certainly more convenient - I learnt the Sitar very, very briefly, and it's a pain to tune (you have to do each string AND each fret individually, and the tuning of each one is different depending on the scale (raga) you're using.
posted by monkey closet at 3:45 AM on December 12, 2002

(In best voice) Fs Fl.
posted by ciderwoman at 4:36 AM on December 12, 2002

monkey closet: It's never been accurate ...

But then "accurate" is fairly ill-defined in this context. Pythagorean integer ratios are very elegant in concept, but don't actually work even if you stay in key: high notes of pianos need to be tuned sharp because mathematically correct octaves in the high register sound flat to the human ear. In a sense, once you start devising tuning systems, the sound will always be subordinate to the underlying philosophical preconception: Pythagorean; equal tempering; LucyTuning based on John 'Longitude' Harrison's idea for a tuning system involving pi ratios; and so on. Actually, I think the whole field of tuning systems is massively contaminated with numerology.
posted by raygirvan at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2002

Solresol's biggest stumbling block, as I see it, lies in its need for a 'classification of ideas' from which the lexicon is generated. In this respect it resembles Wilkins' Philosophical Language based on the notion of a 'real character', that is, a written symbol (as opposed to a sound-sequence, in Solresol's case) which conveys a fixed, unambiguous meaning. Anyone who has used Roget's Thesaurus will have an idea of the kind of thematic classification developed by Wilkins.

As well as obliging its speakers (singers? whistlers?) to agree on a paticular 'dialect': which tuning, which key, or what seven colours, or symbols should be used, then, Solresol additionally obliges them to agree on one and the same inflexibly pre-defined classification-of-the-world...

Umberto Eco's book 'In Search of the Perfect Language' is an interesting summary of this stuff and more besides.
posted by misteraitch at 6:35 AM on December 12, 2002

LimePi and freebird, I don't think you're getting my point. The concept of a "universal musical language" is that it transcends the parochial limits of local cultures and is equally graspable by everybody. It's a great concept, and music could, in fact, be used for this. But basing such a language on our solfege scale undercuts this severely, and reveals that "universal" really only means "universal among people who matter - Westerners."

That's because it's not just a system based on seven integers, or seven equal, random units, it's based on seven notes with specific tonal relationships to each other - relationships that to us are second nature, but to Easterners are not. Can you, right now, hum "Joy to the world, the Lord is come"? Probably. So you have a descending major scale imprinted in your mind through years of enculturation. Don't you think that gives you somewhat of an edge over someone who's never heard that scale?

Or look at it the other way. What if the basic seven units of the language where rhythms, such as 2 against 3, 3 against 4 and so forth. Don't you think practitioners of Indian raga music - and the millions who have heard it from childhood - would have a big edge over you in learning such a language? Might you raise an eyebrow if they said, come on, this is easy, it's a Universal Language?

And once again, yes, the quantum difference in learnability is relevant when one calls something Universal. Yes, a deaf person can learn it. With enough effort, I can learn Chinese. But that doesn't make it a Universal Language.
posted by soyjoy at 7:59 AM on December 12, 2002

Uh, no. A 1902 primer on solresol states

"In order not to excite rivalry and jealousy among the Nations, he created a neutral language, built entirely on the seven syllables of Music, which are known in all countries: Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si.

It is absolutely unnecessary to be familiar with music to learn and to speak this language that will become common to all Nations, because it is neutral, very simple, very easy to pronounce, easy to read and write properly."

Soy, you still have a point. Many Asian languages have no "R" phoneme (and the letter "L" is the closest to it, as many an ethnic humorist *cough* has noted.). But, there are many completely non-musical ways to communicate with solresol.
posted by LimePi at 6:58 PM on December 12, 2002

Sorry to keep dissenting, LimePi, but when rebutting a critique of promoters' claims, citing those promoters' claims again isn't very compelling evidence. If you said "Kenny G. is a deluded hack," and I said, "No, no, look, his liner notes clearly state, 'Kenny G. is loved by everyone,'" would that be a valid argument?

I don't want to come off as anti-solresol. It's a very interesting experiment in transcending cultural limitations. But come on - in 1902, as in the 19th century when it was introduced, Westerners didn't find it necessary to consider those outside their own sphere in calling something "Universal." I have already explained in detail why basing the language on the Western 7-note scale creates an instant divide of haves and have-nots in being able to learn it. The non-musical ways to communicate only follow from having learned the language in the first place.

So while solresol is a great historical artifact, and the original usage of "universal" may be merely naive, trying to promote it in 2002 as "universal" is borderline offensive to non-Westerners.

On the other hand, if Western culture continues its bid to steamroll over everything else (our 7-note scale is the basis for a lot of pop music even in non-Western countries), the term may indeed be applicable in 50 years or so.
posted by soyjoy at 9:29 AM on December 13, 2002

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