I have searched and asked others for the answer to this but have come up dry: What is the name or technique in music where musical notes approximate/imitate speech?

Note that I am not talking about vocoders where speech is modulated by tones or notes, but rather the technique of arranging notes so they sound similar in pitch/length to spoken syllables. An example is the intro to "Hot Blooded" by Foreigner.

Onomatopoeia is really the reverse of the term or idea I'm after.

I asked in the music.stackexchange.com site and while there was no consensus one of the users suggested that I ask the question here. "Rhetoric in music" and "lyrical melody" were suggested as starting points, but I find them vague and not accurate enough to the topic at hand.


6 Answers 6


The term cantabile is used (usually in classical music) to refer to pieces or passages which are "song-like":

Cantabile is a musical term meaning literally "singable" or "songlike" (Italian). It has several meanings in different contexts. In instrumental music, it indicates a particular style of playing designed to imitate the human voice. For 18th century composers, the term is often used synonymously with "cantando" (singing), and indicates a measured tempo and flexible, legato playing. For later composers, particularly in piano music, cantabile indicates the drawing out of one particular musical line against the accompaniment (compare counterpoint).


The word "mimesis" is used in numerous articles (found via Google) describing music composed and performed to imitate the sounds of nature, including bird songs and hunting calls. It is synonomous with mimicry, which makes sense.

Definition of "mimesis" from the FreeDictionary.com:

  1. The imitation or representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially human actions, in literature and art.
  • 2
    That would work, although mimesis is not limited to music, and certainly not to speech. To indicate music that mimics speech, you'd need compound, like speech-mimetic music. Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 16:36
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    @JohnLawler, you're right, and that is actually what I found intriguing about this word - that human spoken words are part of the collective "sounds of nature". Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 16:41

Composer Steve Reich calls the technique "speech melody" and used it in works including Different Trains (1988) and The Cave (1994; extract on YouTube).

From Writings on Music, 1965–2000, page 194:

Since the 1960s I have been interested in speech melody. That is, the melody that all of us unconsciously create while speaking. Sometimes this speech melody is quite pronounced (as in children) and sometimes it is almost nonexistent (as in those speaking in a monotone).

From Writings on Music, 1965–2000, page 152, re Different Trains:

In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments, I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched, then transcribed them as accurately as possible into musical notation. The strings then literally imitate that speech melody.

From "A Conversation with Steve Reich", Contemporary Music and Religion ed. Ivan Moody., re The Cave:

As they speak, so I write. And that is the bedrock on which it's built. So what key I'm in is largely determined by the speech melody they have, the tempo is determined by them, indeed the timbre and nuance.


Did the musicians not offer the term recitative? M-W defines it as follows:

"a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech and that is used for dialogue and narrative in operas and oratorios; also : a passage to be delivered in this style"

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    Recitative is singing that sounds like speech, not music that sounds like speech.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 14:04

What came to mind was Songs without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. While not as modern as Foreigner (they were composed between 1829 and 1845), they have consistently been described as lyrical piano pieces.

One might say that the guitar intro in "Hot Blooded" has a lyrical quality.

This blog asks, "What is lyricism?" The OP asks

Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" is described by some as being "highly lyrical." What specific elements and/or melodies are they referring to?

Although the answers did not specifically mention your aspect of "imitating speech," please audition Barber's "Adagio," "Songs without Words," and Edvard Grieg's "Lyric Pieces" to see if these fit your definition of (non-vocal) music that imitates speech.



A jazz musician who uses their voice instead of a horn (or whatever), to do the thing!

Louis Armstrong

Traditionally that rhapsodic bing-bang-boing jazz randomness vs. traditional Western scales.

(I know it’s not reproducing “imitate speech” – but I had to mention it for posterity! ; )

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