Rhythms in Music and Language

Posted on May 15, 2012

I recently attended a very enjoyable dance show of Nihon Buyo, traditional Japanese dance. The dancers were so graceful and the kimono were distinct and beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the dancers could tell a complex story using a sequence of movements and facial expressions; a geisha waiting for her lover or a dance of the springtime.

To me the rhythm sounded quite exotic, sometimes punctuated by stamps of the feet or pauses. This “exoticness” to my ears may perhaps in part be accounted for by the fact that English is a stress-timed language whereas Japanese is a syllable-timed language. Syllables or phonemes which hold little stress in English can be got through more quickly, whereas in Japanese the syllables hold equal weight regardless of importance to the meaning of the sentence.

You may have noticed that words are pronounced differently in different contexts in English, and this can be quite difficult for those learning English as a foreign language. Take the sentence “Does Benny want to get a curry?” Can you tell intuitively where the stress placement is? It’s on “Benny” and “curry”, the subject and the object.

This leaves “want to get a” running together fast and several of the sounds that would occur in isolation omitted. It can sound something like “wanageta”. One reason for this is that it is a little awkward to pronounce two “t”s sequentially in “want to”.

A general rule for stress placement in a sentence is that the most important words for the meaning of the sentence are usually stressed. Word stress can seem quite irregular but there are some rules and it gets more and more intuitive.

One important rule is that affixes can control the stress placement, like -tion. Any word ending in -tion will have the stress directly before the -tion syllable. Test it! NAtion, disambiguAtion, proTECtion, FACtion, conSUMPtion. You can read more about sentence stress here:


If you can spare some time to read about stress and learn the rules it will help make your English sound much more natural.

Below is a photo from after the Nihon Buyo performance. Thank you very much to everyone who made it such a memorable afternoon.

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