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Seminar: A constraint-based approach to text-setting in Kaytetye, Nay San & Myf Turpin, 6 Sept

Date: 23 August 2019

Seminar: A constraint-based approach to text-setting in Kaytetye

Speakers: Nay San, Stanford University & Myfany Turpin, University of Sydney

When: 6 Sept 2019, 3.30pm-5pm

Where: Basham Seminar room, BPB E2.03, Baldessin Building, ANU


Singing is a universal human activity. Across the vast range of song traditions across the world, native speakers have consistent intuitions about how the syllables of a novel line of text should be set to the musical rhythm of their song traditions. The basis for this ability to ‘text-set’ has been the subject of much research in phonology (e.g. Halle & Lerdhal, 1993; Hayes, 2009; Kiparsky, 2006).

Traditional Australian Aboriginal songs are renowned for their interpretive difficulty (Clunies Ross et al., 1987; Walsh, 2007), in part stemming from potentially radical differences between sung and spoken forms. In this presentation we focus on such differences found in Akwelye ‘rain/rain cloud’, a highly endangered song tradition of the Kaytetye-speaking people of central Australia (Turpin, 2007).

Drawing on a formal approach to text-setting laid out by Hayes (2009), we show that many of the 90 lines of Akwelye represent the best possible resolution between conflicting phonological, metrical, and rhythmic requirements, which together also account for why unattested settings are ill-formed.


Clunies Ross, M., Donaldson, T. & Wild, S. (1987). Songs of Aboriginal Australia. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Halle, J. & Lerdahl, F. (1993). A Generative Textsetting Model. Current Musicology. 55: 3–23.

Hayes, B. (2009). Textsetting as constraint conflict. In J.-L. Aroui & A. Arleo (Eds.), Towards a typology of poetic forms: From language to metrics and beyond (Vol. 2, pp. 43–62). Internal and External Variation in Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kiparsky, P. (2006). A modular metrics for folk verse. In B. E. Dresher & N. Friedberg (Eds.), Formal approaches to poetry, (Vol. 11, pp. 7-49). Phonology and Phonetics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Turpin, M. (2007). Artfully hidden: Text and rhythm in a Central Australian Aboriginal song series. Musicology Australia, 29(1), 93–108.

Walsh, M. (2007). Australian Aboriginal Aboriginal song language: so many questions, so little to work with. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 128–144.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University