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Singing in tone: text-setting constraints in tone languages

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Giulia Bovolenta.

Speakers of European languages are generally puzzled by how it is possible to sing in tone languages like Thai or Chinese, in which pitch is an integral phonetic exponent of lexical meaning. If tone is crucial to imparting linguistic information, how do writers and performers balance potentially competing artistic demands on melodic and lyrical content?

A growing body of research is beginning to make clear that this challenge is an aspect of the more general problem of setting texts to music. Just as European scholarship on prosody has revealed formal constraints on poetic language based on phonetic properties such as vowel length and stress, comparable text-setting constraints in tone languages exist that govern the ways in which tonal sequences can be married to musical melodies.

In this talk, I will present some of our recent work on tonal text-setting in several East and Southeast Asian languages. I will discuss the structural principles involved in tonal text-setting; discovery procedures for how these principles might be inferred; how language and genre impact tone-melody coordination; and how tonal text-setting interacts with aesthetic considerations of performance. Time permitting, I will also discuss how constraints on tone-melody correspondence might interact with metrics more generally.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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