Rhythmic Tendencies in French and English Traditional Songs

Rhythmic Tendencies in French and English Traditional Songs

By Lydia Condrea, Ph.C. in Romance Linguistics, French Instructor at WAL at CityU of Seattle1

Lydia Condrea headshotThis article provides empirical data in support of the hypothesis proposed in Condrea (1995) which states that the presence of the ternary2 element in the rhythmic pattern contributes to the solidity of the prosodic tissue of a language. The more solid the prosodic tissue of the given language, the higher the degree of syllable-timing it exhibits. Knowing that English has a high degree of stress-timing and French, on the other hand, is classified as syllable-timed, we can predict the direction of the changes in rhythmic patterns, namely: from ternary towards binary in English and maintaining ternary element in higher proportions in French.

According to Bronson (1969: 157), “the meter most frequent in the record of the English tradition is 4/4, or common time, two-thirds as many English tunes have been written in 6/8, and half as many in 3/4.” We will see later that in modern times the percentage of a binary type of meter used in English folk songs grows even more. In French folk songs, on the other hand, the distribution is as follows: In Chanter M’Estuet (1981) out of 153 songs, 146 are in 6/8, 2 are in 9/8, and 5 are in mixed meter of 6/8-9/8. So, the type of meter is exclusively one containing a ternary element.

Next,  all versions of all the songs in Sharp were explored (1966)[1932], with a total of 967 songs, along with two collections of French traditional songs, and namely songs in Davenson (1946) and in Canteloube (1959), 678 in total. For the results of this analysis please refer to the following chart:
Table 1:

Distribution of the types of meter in the collections mentioned above(in percentage) Type of meter French English
Binary 48% 58.1%
Containing ternary element 52% 41.3%
Containing quinary and septenary elements 0.0% 0.6%

According to this the data, the distribution of binary versus containing ternary element types of meter in French songs is almost equal, while in English the binary rhythm prevails.

Finally, Condrea looked into the distribution of binary and ternary types of meter in 50 traditional songs that are circulating in modern repertoire in each language:
Table 2:

Distribution of the types of meter for 50 French and 50 English folk songs circulating in modern repertoire (in percentage) Type of meter French English
Binary 30% 70%
Containing ternary element 70% 30%

As one can see, English-American songs definitely favor the binary type of meter, while French songs show a clear predilection for the ternary type.

CONCLUSION. As the data clearly shows, in English-American traditional songs and ballads the presence of binary types of meter is considerable and is growing with time. The change in the distribution of the types of meter in French is more dramatic, especially considering that the Trouvères’ songs all had a ternary element. Over time it diminishes and then grows again, in other words, the meter is holding onto the ternary element’s presence, as it was predicted in the initial hypothesis.
The data examined is dealing only with two languages, however, as it was proposed in Condrea (1995), the trends analyzed here are typological in nature. The author’s hope is that this article will contribute to the discussion of the importance of the prosody in teaching, self-teaching, and learning of any language.

Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Ballad as song. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
Canteloube, Joseph. Anthologie des chants populaire français, groupés et présentés par pays et provinces. Paris: Durand, 1959.
Chanter M’Estuet: Songs of the Trouvères. Ed. Samuel N. Rosenberg. Music ed. Hans Tischler. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Condrea, Lydia. Le rythme comme un des paramètres du système linguistique. Liège: Fondation Universitaire de Belgique, 1995.
Davenson, Henri. Le livre des chansons, Neuchâtel: Editions de la Baconnière, 1946.
Sharp, Cecil. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Ed. Maud Karpeles. London: Oxford University Press, 1966 [1932].

1Note: Originally published in Opera Romanica 5, Editio Universitatis Bohemiæ Meridionalis, České Budějovice (2004), abbreviated by the author.

2The meter is the number of beats in a measure, which means that a binary meter can be divided by 2, while a ternary meter can be divided by 3. Similarly, quinary and septenary are meters that can be divided by 5 and 7 respectively. “Baa baa black sheep” would illustrate a binary meter and “Humpty Dumpty” a meter containing a ternary element.

Published July 14, 2015



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