James KIRBY & Bob LADD

University of Edinburgh


Singing in tone: text-setting constraints in tone languages


A long‐standing question about singing in tone languages is as follows: if pitch is being used to distinguish meaning, how can speakers of tone languages understand lyrics when they are set to music? In other words, how is (linguistic) tone reconciled with (musical) melody?
A small but growing body of research is beginning to make clear that this question is an aspect of the more general text‐setting problem of satisfying (potentially conflicting) linguistic and musical constraints. Just as English places formal restrictions on poetic language based on properties such as vowel length and stress, comparable constraints exist in tone languages that govern the ways in which tonal sequences can be married to musical melodies.
In this presentation, we introduce the problem of tonal text-setting and discuss the kinds of issues relevant to developing cross-linguistic generalisations about tonal text-setting constraints. We focus on the empirical case of Vietnamese tân nhạc or ‘new music’, i.e. the broadly Western-influenced styles developed from the late 1920s and especially from the period of 1954-1975, and consider how various metrics of tonal similarity and grouping of melodic elements can lead to different analyses of text-setting constraints both in Vietnamese and in tone languages more generally.