News & Events


D. Robert Ladd, Professor of Linguistics, University of Edinburgh

Thursday, October 6, 2016
11:00 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Meliora 366, River Campus, University of Rochester

Singing in tone languages: from mystery to research question(s)


Singing in tone languages, a perennial source of mystery to speakers of non-tonal languages, has been the subject of a good deal of research since the turn of the century.  This research shows that the solution to respecting both the linguistic (tonal) and musical functions of pitch crucially involves text-setting constraints.  Specifically, in most of the dozen or more Asian and African tone languages where the question has been studied, the most important principle in maintaining the intelligibility of song texts seems to be the avoidance of what we might (hijacking a term from music theory) call "contrary motion": musical pitch movement up or down from one syllable to the next should not be the opposite of the linguistically specified pitch direction.  I will review some of the empirical evidence for the basic constraint from recent research, and will discuss differences between languages and musical genres in such things as how strictly the constraint is observed. I will also briefly consider two more general issues: (1) how tonal text-setting might be incorporated into a general theory that includes traditional European metrics, and (2) what (if anything) the avoidance of contrary motion tells us about the phonological essence of tonal contrasts.