Comments on Fabb, “Rhythm”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

I think that the proposed universal is very much worth pursuing but I disagree with two of the related claims and would appreciate a response to my reservations by Fabb. The two claims are:

(1) A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure. Such sections are called ‘poetic sections’.

(2) In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of ‘metrical prose’ (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

Claim #1 comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter). This publication does not confront the evidence for the reality of the metrical foot presented by Paul Kiparsky, and in more recent work based on the hypothesis “that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it” (Fabb and Halle, Meter, 10). I was surprised that Fabb and Halle simply ignored this research after noting that it existed. I think excellent evidence and argumentation have been provided for the claim that metrical feet exist, that foot boundaries are aligned with word boundaries in the unmarked case, and that line boundaries are aligned in the unmarked case with the boundaries of natural syntactic constituents (sentences, clauses, and phrases, short phrases of course when a form employs short lines). An important universal proposed by Gilbert Youmans is that “higher-level metrical boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (376). This explains, for example, why coincidence of foot boundaries with word boundaries is less strictly regulated than coincidence of line boundaries with phrase boundaries. I think the most challenging poetic material for Fabb would be Irish alliterative meters in which the enumerated constituent of the line is the word. (For a summary and references, see Russom.)

Fabb’s claim #2 is stated as if it were an unremarkable one but it seems very remarkable to me. Music in 4/4 time, as generally understood, is divided into measures, and the unmarked realization of the measure is as a group of four quarter notes with the prominence contour 1/3/2/4 (“1” being highest). The leftward boundary of the measure coincides with a prominently accented note in the unmarked case. I have not read Fabb and Halle (“Grouping”) but it is important to clarify what it meant by claim #2 for the benefit of music theorists and musicians. Fabb might want to consider the universals for musical groups in Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (the list of universals is on pp. 345–52).

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse.” Linguistic Inquiry 8 (1977): 189-247.

Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1983.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Word Patterns and Phrase Patterns in Universalist Metrics.” In Frontiers in Comparative Prosody. Ed. Mihhail Lotman and Maria-Kristiina Lotman. Bern: Peter Lang, 2011, 337–71.

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s Meter.” In Phonetics and Phonology: Rhythm and Meter, Volume 1. Ed. Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans. San Diego, CA: Academic P, 1989), 341-379.



By: Geoffrey Russom, Brown University