'Talking drum' mimics speech patterns of West Africa's Yorùbá language

The Ifesowapo dùndún ensemble is pictured performing in Igbo Ora, a city in southwest Nigeria. Photo by Cecilia Durojaye
The Ifesowapo dùndún ensemble is pictured performing in Igbo Ora, a city in southwest Nigeria. Photo by Cecilia Durojaye

July 27 (UPI) -- In West Africa, drummers speak through their instruments -- literally.

According to a new study, the dùndúns drum -- in the hands of a skilled percussionist -- can accurately mimic the speech patterns of Yorùbá, a tonal language most prominent in southern Nigeria.


The dùndúns is the instrument of choice for drummers in the region's musical-oral tradition.

In addition to generating musical percussion patterns, the drum also works as a so-called "speech surrogate," replicating a trio of tones central to the Yorùbá language.

RELATED Facial markings once held Nigerian families together, now fading

For the study, published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Communication, researchers compared 30 short Yorùbá phrases, both spoken and sung, with corresponding drum beats.

Detailed analysis of the speech and drum patterns proved dùndúns accurately replicate the microstructural characteristics of Yorùbá vocalization.

The analysis of traditional dùndúns patterns revealed four primary modes of communication: rhythm, singing, drum talking-performative and drum talking-direct. Researchers found the drums most closely mimicked Yorùbá speech patterns during drum talking-direct.

RELATED Study finds a bit of caveman in many

By studying unique musical-oral traditions, scientists hope to illuminate broader truths about the links between music and speech.

Previous studies have shown that the human brain is uniquely tuned to musical pitch, and that music and songs from diverse cultures feature universal commonalities.


"These kinds of multicultural findings are useful for considering deeper relationships and understanding of types of auditory communication and the evolution of language and music," lead author Cecilia Durojaye said in a press release.

RELATED African art's focus on duality explored

"The talking drum is unique in that it has a foot in both language and music camps, and because its existence reminds us of the thin boundary between speech and music," said Durojaye, a researcher and musicologist at Arizona State University.

In addition to analyzing the timing patterns among drum and speech recordings, researchers also studied frequency and intensity patterns in order to understand structural commonalities between dùndúns rhythms and Yorùbá phrases.

"Our finding that verifies distinct drumming modes varying between musical functions and speech surrogacy helps clarify how the talking drum is used in specific functional ways relating to different types of communication," Durojaye said.

The speech surrogate abilities of the dùndúns make the drum a powerful cultural tool, capable of disseminating historical knowledge, as well as perpetuating belief systems and values important to the Yorùbá people.

While the latest research confirmed the acoustic accuracy and functional importance of the dùndúns, researchers still don't entirely understand the mechanics of speech surrogacy, such as how the drum replicates language on the syntactic or semantic level.


"Our study, which focuses on the acoustic properties of spoken, sung and drummed forms, represents one of the first steps towards understanding these various structures," Durojaye said.

"We continue to explore this unique instrument, which has the potential for enhancing our understanding of music and language processing, especially from a non-western perspective," Durojaye said.

Latest Headlines