Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Poetry, rhythm, and meter: Textsetting

Knowledge and culture subproject 4: "Poetry, rhythm, and meter" of Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

2013 - 2017
NWO Horizon Grant NWO Horizon Grant

Subproject implementation

The expression textsetting denotes the process of aligning textual units to musical units in creating and/or performing vocal music. What is interesting about textsetting is that native speakers (who are active participants in their singing traditions) have clear intuitions as to how to map a text onto a tune, despite the lack of explicit training and the difficulty implied by the coordination of the various abilities involved. How do people do this? 

Like other forms of creative processes, textsetting is subject to both cognitive and cultural constraints. As to the former, little is known about the way the language-related and the music-related requirements interact in our brain, when texts are set to music. We have no clear understanding of what cognitive system(s) attend(s) to the simultaneous activation of the language and music "modules". We don’t know to what extent the textsetting process is music-driven, language-constrained, or adhere (partly or entirely) to universal, perceptual and/or psychological principles. 

My contribution to answering this question consists of an empirical study of individual singing idioms and natural languages. The point of departure is the comparison between German and Dutch textsetting in folk songs. My methodology includes the formal analysis of (extant and invented) musical settings, as well as acoustic measurements of both textual and melodic material, and perceptual tests with native speakers.

At this stage, I am dealing primarily with the alignment of lexical stress onto the musical structure, understood as a combination of meter (with its alternation of downbeats and upbeats) and melody (i.e. a sequence of sounds with different pitches). My focus is particularly on those (mis)alignments between the prosodic and the musical structure that reveal the way acoustic and perceptual cues are used to create different levels of prominence. Click here for an example of misalignment with the graphic representation currently in use. 

The next step is to test native speakers (of German and Dutch) in order to establish whether their perception of formal mismatches between lexical prominence and musical rhythm is reinforced by changes in the temporal ratios and pitch contours (click here for an example). 


Dell, François & John Halle. 2009. ‘Comparing musical textsetting in French and in English songs’. In Jean-Louis Aroui & Andy Arleo (a cura di.), Towards a typology of poetic forms, 63-78. Amsterdam.

Halle, John & Fred Lerdahl. 1993. ‘A Generative Textsetting Model’. Current Musicology 55, 3-23.

Hayes, Bruce. 2009. ‘Textsetting as constraint conflict’ In Jean-Louis Aroui & Andy Arleo (eds.), Towards a typology of poetic forms, 43-61. Amsterdam.

Hayes, Bruce & Abigail Kaun. 1996. ‘The role of phonological phrasing in sung and chanted verse’. Linguistic Review 13. 243-303.

Liberman, Mark. 1975. The intonational system of English. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT dissertation.

Proto, Teresa & Dell, François. 2013. ‘The structure of metrical patterns in tunes and in literary verse. Evidence from discrepancies between musical and linguistic rhythm in Italian songs’. Probus – An International Journal of Latin and Romance Linguistics 25. [download it here]

Links to my other websites can be found here and here.

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