Singing in tone: Text-setting constraints in Southeast Asia

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language

Abstract

This project will study how it is possible to sing in a tone language like Thai or Chinese. In Thai, for example, the syllable 'khaa' can mean one of five different things depending on whether it is spoken with high, medium, low, rising, or falling pitch. Since music is made up of notes with different pitches, how is it possible for speakers of a language like Thai to understand song lyrics at all?

This kind of problem is actually very similar to one familiar to anyone who speaks a Western language like English. For example, most native speakers of English will share the intuition that 'There once was a lady from Dallas' is a much better start to a limerick than 'There once was an old woman from Inverness'. Why do we think that the first line 'sounds better' than the second? This intuition reflects the shared knowledge that English speakers have about the rhythmic structure of English words, as well as about structure imposed by the form of a limerick. The trick in coming up with a suitable limerick is in figuring out how to match up one to the other.

It is clear that speakers of at least some tone languages have similarly strong intuitions about whether certain words are well-matched to a particular melody. My goal in this project is to understand and explain the musical and linguistic factors that underlie these intuitions. In order to understand how speakers accomplish this task, we first need a good understanding of whether tone languages differ in how words are set to music, and if so, how. Second, it is necessary to understand the role that musical style or genre plays in this process. Just as a limerick differs from a roundelay, different styles of song may impose different constraints on the relationship between linguistic tone and musical melody. In this project, I will focus on two particular tone languages, Thai and Vietnamese. These languages have different types of tone systems, providing a chance to see how tone languages differ in terms of text-setting, but also have rich and varied musical traditions, making them ideal languages in which to examine the role of genre.

Part of my project aims to make the findings of my research accessible to a non-academic audience. Musical structure is perhaps more widely appreciated, and possibly more intuitive to appreciate, than linguistic structure; by emphasising the close parallels between language and music, I hope to increase general public awareness of and stimulate interest in linguistics more broadly. Furthermore, both of the languages I propose to look at have musical traditions stretching back thousands of years, but also vibrant modern music scenes that have been profoundly influenced by modern Western idioms. Globalisation is having an obvious impact on music and language throughout Southeast Asia, and this has sparked debate throughout the region about the value of different forms of musical expression based on their adherence to traditional constraints on artistic language. The results of this project can inform these conversations by showing how differences in the way that language is used in music can reflect different artistic goals. This will both inform my future research and provide potentially useful new frameworks and concepts for those working with language and music outside academia.

Planned Impact

There are two primary non-academic audiences that stand to benefit from this project: the Vietnamese and Thai communities (both in the UK and in Southeast Asia) and the general public in the UK and abroad.

The study of how language and melody interact in tone languages provides a striking example of why artistic language is not simply 'singing while talking', but that there exists a delicate interplay between musical and linguistic structure, with implications for our understanding of the cultural value of musical expression from both internal and external perspectives. This is a particularly timely issue both in modern Southeast Asia as well as in Southeast Asian diaspora communities in the UK, involving the cultural expression of authenticity, heritage, and belonging. The influence of Western music has had a profound impact on the music produced in modern Southeast Asia, causing some observers (both within and beyond the region) to fear for the loss of traditional musical knowledge and styles. This project addresses these issues by laying bare the hidden linguistic threads that tie together diverse musical forms within and across languages. Demonstrating that different forms of music, modern as well as traditional, share fundamental qualities of 'Thai-ness' or 'Vietnamese-ness' can contribute to this ongoing conversation about changing norms and values in art and music, as well as provide a powerful demonstration of how linguistics can aid in the understanding of cultural expression.

Similarly, the findings of this project stand to benefit the general public by providing an intuitive and accessible example of what linguistic research consists of, why it is interesting and valuable, and how it is carried out. While few members of the general public have much experience with the finer points of linguistic structure, there is a much wider appreciation of differences in music. This topic can thus provide a unique 'hook' by which to educate the public about the value of linguistic research. In particular, this project can provide an introduction to issues of language variation ('some languages are tonal?'), structural similarities ('I know what limericks are!'), and the ways in which languages balance conflict constraints on form and meaning ('now that I know Chinese is tonal, I can see how singing could be a problem...so how *do* people understand the lyrics?') I intended to communicate these ideas in a series of free public events at locations outside the traditional classroom setting (see "Pathways to impact").

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The research made possible by this award generated significant new knowledge (1a-b), led to new networks and collaborations (2a-c), increased future research capabilities (3), and uncovered important new research sources (4).

(1a) The research resulted in new findings regarding the constraints on how tone and tune are aligned in tone languages. Avoidance of contrary motion, rather than preference for similar motion, appears to be the principle unifying tonal text-setting across languages and genres. In other words, what is important is that the tone and tune not explicitly clash; however, they need not always, or even preferentially, align, as suggested by much earlier work.

(1b) While there appear to be language- and potentially genre-specific rankings of constraints on tone-tune correspondence (viz., a stronger preference for similar motion in Vietnamese than in Thai), it also appears that while tone-tune mapping conventions are not the same in all tone languages, such conventions may be so fundamental as to permeate even highly acculturated song forms. Thus, the study of both traditional and acculturated song forms can provide a useful indication of the ways in which composers and performers have, or have not, adapted text-setting practices in the face of musical and cultural innovation. This is now an area of active ongoing research.

(2a) During fieldwork in Thailand, I made contact with an ethnomusicologist who is expert in the genre of luk thung. This led me to discover a number of important complications, such as the language- and genre-specific challenges of dissociating constraints on the composer's setting of a text from the performer's interpretation of that text. While this impacted completion of the research objectives, it also led to new collaborations: I was invited to participate in a symposium on history and musicology organised under the auspices of the British Academy, and the ethnomusicologist and I are now pursuing a joint research project and co-authoring a paper on tonal text-setting in Thai luk thung music. I am also publishing a historically-minded paper (currently under review) in the proceedings of the British Academy symposium.

(2b) The award-funded workshop led to an invitation to take part in a workshop at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study, which we now hope will lead to a NIAS Theme Group Proposal.

(2c) We have been invited to contribute a chapter to the forthcoming Handbook of Prosody on singing in tone, with the remit of consolidating existing knowledge and identifying outstanding empirical or analytical issues.

(3) Finding the optimal ordering of tones for a given corpus turned out to be computationally intensive; the software developed for this project implements a computationally efficient solution to this problem. This software will have a utility beyond the award period and will be made available via GitHub.

(4) During fieldwork, I acquired several important Thai- and Vietnamese-language resources containing musical transcripts and analysis, including the 2 volume "Kueng satawat pleeng luuk thung Thai" and H?ng Thao's "300 bài dân ca quan h? B?c Ninh". Both will provide the basis for much future research.
Exploitation Route In terms of non-academic impact, the findings have relevance for artists and performers, both in terms of an increased understanding of the processes underlying their own artistic practices, but also by showcasing the underlying complexity of the task of composing for and singing in tone languages, even in what are sometimes regarded dismissively as "popular" genres.

In terms of academic audiences, the data we have analysed so far are available via the Edinburgh DataShare repository (http://dx.doi.org/10.7488/ds/1434), where we will continue to archive future datasets. The substantive findings have already influenced other colleagues working in this area. A major focus of the publications and presentations produced so far has been to outline a general research agenda to comprehensively address tone-tune correspondences, and to identify a set of research questions that arise given this general framing. We have already seen some evidence of this being taken up by other academic colleagues in drafts and articles under review; see e.g. McPherson and Ryan, "Tone-tune association in Tommo So (Dogon) folk songs" (submitted).
Sectors Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

URL http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~jkirby/song/
 
Description My findings prompted my invitation to a symposium on "Sounds and structure in music and language" at the University of Cologne in July 2016. Organised to celebrate the 70th birthday of the New Music composer Klarenz Barlow, the symposium featured presentations from composers and musicians in addition to academics, and concluded with a series of concerts. The symposium was covered by the popular press. My presentation on singing in tone languages was described by the German MusikTexte magazine (issue 150, p. 112) as the only one which actually succeeded in connecting language and music.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural

 
Title Tone-melody correspondence in Vietnamese popular song: supplementary materials 
Description This dataset contains supplementary materials to the paper "Tone-melody correspondence in Vietnamese popular song", published in the proceedings of the 5th International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages [TAL-2016]. It contains CSV data collected from a corpus of 20 Vietnamese songs, as well as R code to replicate the analysis reported in the paper. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Laid groundwork for creation of larger-scale datasets and analysis software. 
URL http://datashare.is.ed.ac.uk/handle/10283/2047
 
Description Invited talk, BAR70W Symposium 'Sound and Structure in Language and Music' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited talk as part of the 70th birthday celebrations for composer Klarenz Barlow. Audience was primarily composers and musicians, along with interested members of the general public and a few post/graduate students. A truly interdisciplinary event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://sociolab.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/26746.html
 
Description Invited talk, Balzan Musicology Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk to an audience of musicologists, historians, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, as well as students and members of the general public. Talk was very well received and received a request to give a talk in a graduate seminar at the University of Vienna later this year.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.music.ox.ac.uk/assets/Programme-Flier.pdf
 
Description Invited talk, NIAS Textsetting workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Follow-on workshop organised by an attendee to the workshop we had organised in Glasgow in 2015. The small group made a lot of very fruitful discussion possible. In addition to plans for additional networking, the discussion has led to very direct impact on my own research methodology with respect to this project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.nias.knaw.nl/news-events/calendar/workshop-events/textsetting-constraints-in-tone-languag...
 
Description Invited talk, SOAS Workshop on Music and Language in Cross-Cultural Perspective 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentations from invited participants were then followed by a lengthy discussion/planning session for a larger research programme in the form of an AHRC Network proposal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited talk, UCL Linguistics Seminar Series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Talk sparked extensive discussion that continued during the post-seminar dinner.

I received follow-on communications with colleagues and postgraduates, was made aware of previously unknown work on the topic, and may have inspired several students to pursue research in this area. In addition I was invited to participate in a meeting with colleagues at UCL and SOAS to discuss interdisciplinary collaboration in the area of language and music, which will take place on 11 Feb 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Invited talk, University of Chicago Linguistics Colloquium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited talk given as part of a colloquium series. Received expression of interest from University of Chicago Press to discuss possible book-length treatment of subject matter.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited talk, University of Sydney Linguistics Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation at University of Sydney. Intensive discussion followed, spilling over into lunch.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://sydney.edu.au/arts/linguistics/about/events/?id=10193
 
Description Invited talk, Workshop on Vietnamese Prosody 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Presentation engendered healthy post-workshop discussion of research topic.

After the presentation, colleagues made useful suggestions about directions for follow-on research and pointed out some technical corrections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://vietnamese.uni-koeln.de/
 
Description Paper presented at British Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paper presented at BFE Annual Conference. Despite coming from a rather different methodological/theoretical perspective, talk was well-received and sparked extensive discussion, including requests for written versions from postgraduate students and plans for a follow-on workshop with audience members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://bfe.org.uk/conf/new-currents-ethnomusicology-bfe-annual-conference-2016
 
Description Paper presented at the 5th International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented a technical overview of the work to a peer audience, including undergraduate and postgraduate students. Several audience members had quite detailed comments and we spent a considerable amount of one on one time discussing aspects of the presentation in the days following.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://ubwp.buffalo.edu/tal2016/
 
Description Singing in tone - ICPhS 2015 Satellite Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation workshop facilitator
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The three invited presentations each took on the problem of singing in tone from a different methodological perspective. An animated discussion of well over an hour followed, and plans were made for a follow-on workshop (planned for April 2016).

Although technically only a half day, the workshop spawned 2 days of related meetings and discussions. Nearly all attendees (~30) asked to be kept abreast of future developments in this area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~jkirby/song/