Monday 14 November 2011

sung rhythm

There were several interesting papers given at the EPSJ conference just over a week ago in Kochi, and I plan to discuss a few of them over the next few days.

Two of the speakers touched on the use of songs and nursery rhymes in the classroom as pedagogical devices to improve the teaching of pronunciation to EFL students. Both concluded that although they can be valuable they nevertheless need to be handled with caution. This is because the rhythm used in singing is not necessarily identical to the rhythm used by NSs in ordinary speech. (Neither of the two speakers furnished detailed preprints or handouts, so what follows is my own thoughts inspired by their presentations.)

Take the location of stresses. In singing these take the form of the rhythmical beats imposed by the music. Generally speaking, song lyrics reflect lexical stress well: where there’s a lexical stress you get a beat, where there isn’t you don’t. But the correspondence is by no means 100%.

  ˈJack and ˈJill went ˈup the ˈhill to ˈfetch a ˈpail of ˈwaˈter
  ˈJack fell ˈdown and ˈbroke his ˈcrown and ˈJill came ˈtumbling ˈafˈter.

But in ordinary speech we don’t double-stress water and after. On the other hand we might well stress went and fell.

In particular, rhythmic beats in singing are not a good guide to the deaccentuation of function words. Take this example.

  ˈI’m ˈdreaming of a ˈwhite ˈChristmas
  ˈJust like the ˈones I used to ˈknow

In these lyrics, since there’s no call for contrastive focus on I’m, in ordinary speech we wouldn’t accent it. (Compare ˈI’m ˈdreaming,| but ˈyou’re aˈwake.) So these lyrics would offer a bad model to those EFL learners who tend to accent pronouns inappropriately.

One speaker got into a terrible muddle with the Burns song Comin’ thro’ the Rye.
  Gin a body meet a body
  Comin thro’ the rye,
  Gin a body kiss a body,
  Need a body cry?

For the second body, the music imposes a longer, higher-pitched note on the second syllable than on the first. This led the speaker, if I understood him correctly, to conclude that in the song the word is wrongly stressed, as bɒˈdiː. On the contrary, I would say that it is correctly stressed, and neatly demonstrates the point that in English accent may on occasion be manifested by LOWER pitch than that of a following unstressed syllable, and that in disyllables with a short stressed vowel in the first syllable the second syllable may well be of greater duration than the first.

In any case, the stylized strathspey rhythm of the song is pretty different from the rhythm of ordinary speech. I agree that this song is unsuitable for pedagogical use (except possibly for advanced students), not least because it’s in Scots.

I hope I do not need to add that gin here is pronounced ɡɪn and means ‘if’. Perhaps I ought to add it to LPD.


  1. This might be circular, but meters and songs work better to teach EFL if they're well written. Then again, even as a native speaker, one might be annoyed by cheap pop lyrics or The cat in the hat. (I find Julia Donaldson's verses much more natural than Dr Seuss's.)

    The nice thing about nursery rhymes is that they sometimes show real-life variants, eg rhyming clothes with nose, spider with beside her or prayers with stairs, but sometimes the rhymes don't rhyme anymore or do so only in regional non-RP accents (warm and harm), or the EFL reader is left puzzling whether water and after, one and down or home and none should somehow sound alike.

  2. The elongation of water for emphasis and stylistic effect is not that unusual in non-rhythmic speech. Think of the Goons' He's fallen in the water.

    The great value in traditional rhymes for pronunciation teachers is the practice they give in stress timing. Stripped of the complication of melody, consider

    Pease porridge hot
    Pease porridge cold
    Pease porridge in the pot
    Nine days old

    One two, Buckle my shoe
    Three four, Knock at the door
    Five six, Pick up sticks
    Seven eight, Lay them straight
    Nine ten, A big fat hen.

    Girls' skipping games provide many more examples of unsung rhymes. As for sung rhymes, some are better suited than Jack and Jill. For example:

    Hickory dickory dock
    The mouse ran up the clock

    Three blind mice, three blind mice
    They all ran after the farmer's wife
    She cut off their tails with a carving knife
    Did ever you see such a thing in your life
    As three blind mice

    This has several three-syllable units of equal length to other one-syllable units. Similarly

    See saw Marjorie Daw
    Jacky shall have a new master

    ... except that master grabs that extra beat. But this is exactly the same convention as water, after, caper, paper in Jack and Jill. It's not a random factor, seven if there's a little confusion at first non-native observers, it should soon dispell.

    Coming Through The Rye would be fine for non-native speakers if translated into English. Fine as a pedagogic device, that is. As a song or rhyme it's better in Scots.

    Nor do I think it's all that unusual to stress the I in I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas. It only becomes contrastive when the stress on the verb is downgraded, but the metre of the song give full stress to dream-.

    Incidentally, unstressed I'm is problematic in song — at least in popular song. There was an entertaining LP produced for the EFL market with one song Present Progressive Baby

    I’m walking down a street
    I’m waiting for a bus
    I’m watching an old lady
    Who’s holding a small dog

    I once remarked to a group of TEFL students in Germany that the repeated I'm felt slightly odd for a song. One of the students happened to be a native speaker and reacted with the musing

    Oh yes. 'Sitting on the dock of the bay'.

  3. Lipman

    meters and songs work better to teach EFL if they're well written

    In many cases better still if they're composed or edited by oral tradition.

  4. Jack Windsor Lewis comments:

    Some readers may care to see more discussion along these lines and even light verse written expressly to avoid the pitfalls mentioned for EFL practice in Section 4.2 at .

  5. I had difficulty with the sound files for JWL's limericks, but I get the idea.

    I do like the vowel contrasts, but some of the limericks are rhythmically unfortunate.

  6. I'm curious if any other North American readers (who can read notation) know this tune for "Jack and Jill". The nursery rhyme is familiar enough, but I wonder if the melody somehow fell overboard crossing the Atlantic.

  7. It's not the tune I'm familiar with here in England.

  8. And the tune of Coming Through The Rye looks very wrong. To my ear, the tune everybody else sings starts with a phrase going up, not down. And not to C-chord.

  9. Chasing up version of Coming Through The Rye, I'm surprised to learn that the usually sung text is not what Burns wrote. He starts

    Oh Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
    Jenny's seldom dry,
    She draigl't a' her petticoatie
    Comin thro' the rye.

    Even less use to TEFL. Not least because a' ('all') in the first line covers two beats.

    The closest approximation I've found on YouTube is this.

  10. The chord-progression for CTtR is odd as well.

  11. "I hope I do not need to add that gin here is pronounced ɡɪn and means ‘if’." Why do you hope that John? There are no doubt many EFL speakers reading this blog, and I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few native speakers not accustomed to Northern British varieties of English also have never heard of this word.

  12. And there are instances where the stress pattern is one that would never occur in speech. I've always been struck by that in the hymn 'When I survey':

    Were THE whole REALM of NAture MINE,
    That WERE an OFF'ring FAR too SMALL;
    Love SO aMAZing, SO diVINE
    DeMANDS my SOUL, my LIFE, my ALL.

    'The' and 'were' stressed? But somehow through the passage of years, I've grown used to it!

  13. There seem to be quite a lot of "Jack and Jill" melodies out there. This is the one I grew up with; I haven't heard this or this before.

    Peter Tan: When "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" is sung to the tune of "Waly, Waly" (aka "The Water Is Wide"), the first four syllables of each line carry approximately equal weight in the melody, so the unnatural stress is disguised. If I were reading the lyrics as a poem, I would simply invert the first two feet of the first two lines into trochees, a very normal substitution in English iambics.


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