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Summary Details

Query:   Phonemic Vowel Length and Music
Author:  Julian Bradfield
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonology

Summary:   In 16.2628(2), I asked:

How do languages with phonemic vowel length (especially when there are
no quality distinctions between long and short versions) treat vocal music?
Or perhaps more accurately, how do people writing songs in such languages
treat length?
Do they mostly preserve it, or mostly ignore it?
Is it perhaps the case that a short vowel can be extended to fit a long note, but a long vowel cannot be shortened?

I received several replies over the following weeks, and here, with
the usual apologies for the delay, is the summary. Those wishing the
complete texts of the replies are welcome to ask me!

Hungarian(1): Katalin M?dy replied that in folk music there is not
usually a strict metrical rhythm, so the difficulty is avoided. For
classical music, she writes "you either ignore vowel length, if the
translation is unlucky (most Hungarian composers would avoid setting
long notes on short syllables), or you change the proportion of
vocalic and consonantal segments. For example, you could indicate that
the vowel is short by growing the length of the following consonant. But more often, the difference is just disregarded.

Hungarin(2): Krisztina Zajd? says "when [composers/writers] can not/do
not [match vowel length to note length], it is fairly bothering to the
native ear. Overall, musician/text writer dyads are quite good at
composing music that allows for keeping phonemic length distinctions."

Ancient Greek: Anne Mahoney summarized the evidence for Ancient Greek
music, concluding that "Ancient Greek music seems to respect syllable

German(1): Peter Daniels observes that the first two lines of
Schumann's "Widmung" demonstrate a lack of correlation between vowel and note length.

German(2): On the other hand, Johannes Heinecke, says "while
interpreting choral music (very often German sacral music as of Bach, Mozart, Mendelsson) we felt odd when vowel length did not concide with
musical length." And also "Fortunately (for us singers) this does not
happen too often in classical music. If I had to write the music to a
poem, I would certainly avoid putting long notes on short vowels. The
orther way round is less bad, since it's just like quick singing."

Estonian: Aniruddh Patel pointed me to the extensive works of Ilsa
Lehiste on prosody in Finno-Ugric languages, in particular Ross, J. &
Lehiste, I. (2001). The Temporal Structure of Estonian Runic
Songs. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. I have not had the opportunity to
look at this book, but from an online review it appears to need some
redefinition of note and syllable to get a match.

Finnish: from perusal of a hymn book at a recent wedding in Finland, I
observed that there is no apparent reluctance to put short vowels on
long notes or vice versa, even when both the text and the music are
by Finns.

Vietnamese: Andrea Pham says that there is no problem putting short
vowels on long notes or vice versa. She then remarks: "I think more
interesting is when these vowels occur in stop-final syllables. All
final stops are voiceless and unreleased in this language. In these
cases, the singer normally extends the long vowel to fit a long
musical note, e.g., [ha:t] (to sing), but they do not do that with the
short vowel. Instead the singer finishes the syllable as in speech and
'drags' on the homorganic nasal, e.g., the [n] in the word [mat]
(eyes), to fit the long musical note."

General: Ana Rojas, a linguistics student who was formerly an opera
singer, writes that although composers often match vowel and note
length, there are many occasions when they do not, and then it is up
to the singer to use other techniques such as stress.

My thanks to all the respondents. The answers are more varied than I expected!
For whose who wanted to know why I asked: I was recently engaged to
advise on the use of Elvish language in the musical production of
The Lord of the Rings due to open in Toronto in February. This ended
up involving writing some lyrics in both Quenya and Sindarin, and
given the relative paucity of Elvish materials, the need to fit
the already written music, and my distinct lack of poetic skills, I
couldn't avoid some lapses in vowel/note correlation. So I was
curious about how uncomfortable this would sound in real-world

LL Issue: 16.3641
Date Posted: 21-Dec-2005


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