Edinburgh Research Explorer

Singing in tone languages

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of Prosody
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2018


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 text-setting constraints are the heart of the solution to respecting both the linguistic and the musical functions of pitch. Specifically, in most of the 15 or 20 Asian and African tone languages where the question has been studied, the most important principle in maintaining intelligibility of song texts seems to be the avoidance of what we 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. We review the variations on this theme that have been described in the recent literature, including differences between languages and musical genres in how strictly the constraint is observed, and other phonetic resources used to signal tonal distinctions in singing. We 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 the avoidance of contrary motion tells us about the phonological essence of tonal contrasts.

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