My recently completed PhD was in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, but its topic was obviously interdisciplinary – how did I come up with this crazy idea?
I first considered the notion of language influence on brass playing when attending a lecture on the phonetics and phonology of English after starting a High School Teaching degree back in Germany while studying orchestral trombone. It must have been the realization that the movements of the speech organs in playing the trombone were quite similar to those used when producing speech sounds that led me to consider the playing differences observed among myself and fellow trombone students from other countries such as China, Korea, and France in a different light. I briefly discussed this observation with the lecturer at the time but then lost sight of it until after completing my High School Teaching degree at the end of 2012.
My interest in the topic resurfaced when I contacted a lecturer at my current university regarding a suitable topic for a PhD scholarship application that would combine language and music. Dr Watson mentioned the recent acquisition of an ultrasound machine by the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour and it quickly became apparent that this would be the ideal technology to empirically investigate my hypothesis. The use of ultrasound imaging in articulatory phonetics enables researchers to record midsagittal and/or coronal images of the tongue in motion by placing an ultrasound transducer underneath the subject’s chin; although this can also be achieved by using x-ray imaging or electromagnetic articulography, ultrasound is the only one of these methods which is noninvasive and can realistically be employed while playing a brass instrument. Furthermore, the suitability of using ultrasound to record movements of the tongue while playing wind instruments had been previously documented by Joshua T. Gardner’s thesis on clarinet multiple articulation (2010).
Naturally, my initial thoughts about differences in the playing of trombonists from different countries were not based on scientific observations as I did not have any background in Linguistics at that time. They were rather based on some lay motions along the lines of German being a ‘hard’ (‘consonantal’) language and I had learned that in German, even words beginning with a vowel (in terms of orthography) are usually preceded by a so-called glottal stop (the same is true for English). While I could not exactly place why Asian players sounded differently, I had listened to a substantial number of recordings by American players and had previously spent a year in the US as an international exchange student. American playing seemed to me to be less precise in terms of articulation and the ‘American sound’ overall seemed to be less centered than that of German trombonists; at the other end of the spectrum, I could observe in my French colleagues that their playing was very precise in terms of articulation and their sound also seemed to be much lighter and more centered than either that of American or German players. Of course, these observations beg the question as to whether these perceived peculiarities are really a product of language differences or merely acquired cultural or stylistic differences; the training received in a particular style of playing certainly presents a substantial confound to my study. Nevertheless, I’ve already found some cool initial evidence suggesting that the vowel systems of different languages affect the tongue positions used for playing sustained notes on the trombone and I hope to be able to quantify this with more data of trombone players speaking the same or similar First Languages!
In June 2015 I was interviewed by Radio New Zealand National’s Alison Ballance about my PhD research and you can still listen to the podcast on the Radio NZ website.
Make sure you check out my videos on YouTube, channel name: Matthias Heyne.
You can find information about my publications and presentations and of course my full PhD dissertation under the Publications, presentations tab (including other full-text downloads).