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Delivery Schemata And Vocal Stress

Jocelyn Neal (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), Chair

The Vocal Backbeat as a Text Painting Device in Recent Mainstream Country Music

Kristi Hardman (The Graduate Center, CUNY)


This paper explores a text-music phenomenon, that I call vocal backbeat, which is used as a text painting device in much recent mainstream country music. Vocal backbeat occurs when phonetic accents and/or rhyming words appear on beats 2 and 4 of a 4/4 meter. In these vocal backbeats, beats 2 and 4 are also performatively stronger through phenomenal accents, including durational, dynamic, and/or pitch accents. 

Vocal backbeat is often used as a text painting device in recent mainstream country music in order to create a sense of tension. In sections with vocal backbeat, there is a divorce between the phenomenal accents in the vocals and the conventional metric accents in the guitars and keyboards. Drawing on recent work on metric dissonance, text-music relationships, and positional listening (Attas 2015, Biamonte 2014, Covach 2020, Samarotto 1999, and Malawey 2020, among others), I suggest that, within the singer’s part, the backbeat feels like the strongest of the four beats, subverting our expectations of 4/4 meter. The tension between the parts usually accompanies a conflict in the song’s narrative. Once the conflict resolves in the lyrics, the patterns of accent in the vocals, guitars and keyboards reconcile as well. This paper will include analyses of songs by Carrie Underwood, Kane Brown, Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Emerson Drive.

Syncopation and Syllabic Stress in 20th-Century Popular Music

Joseph VanderStel (Artusi, Inc.)

David Temperley (Eastman School of Music)


Syllabic stress rarely factors into theoretical models of syncopation. Most studies define syncopation purely in terms of note positions in relation to the meter (Gomez et al. 2007). For styles of music where stressed syllables almost always fall on strong beats, it is reasonable to design a model of syncopation that forgos syllabic stress. This is not true of popular music, where stressed syllables often do not align with metric accents (Tan et al. 2019). Syncopation in popular music may even arise from syllabic stress alone: from a stressed syllable that is metrically weaker than a following unstressed syllable. Such syncopations are striking because they involve a direct conflict between syllabic stress and metrical strength. In this paper we explore the rise of this unprecedented type of syncopation in American popular music of the 20th century. In a survey of top Billboard songs from each year of the 20th century, we find that over half of all syncopations of this type occur after 1975, and over 75% occur after 1950. In contrast, our survey suggests that traditional syncopations, those with no note on the following strong beat, are common in all decades of the century. We show how syncopations arising from a mismatch of syllabic stress are often capable of greater expressivity than traditional syncopations, particularly in musical contexts where traditional syncopations are very common.

Anaphoric Descents in Hip-Hop Vocal Delivery

Mitchell Ohriner (University of Denver)


A growing collection of scholarship by Noriko Manabe, Robert Komaniecki, myself, and others analyzes pitch organization in the rapping voice using methods from both music theory and intonational phonology. One principle of the latter is that syllables carrying linguistic “focus”—that is, new, non-derivable information—tend to be higher in pitch. Another principle of intonational phonology, termed “declination,” holds that spoken utterances (not unlike sung melodies) tend to decline in pitch. One prominent poetic schema in rap lyrics, the anaphora—that is, several utterances that begin with the same words—pits these two principles against each other. In an anaphora, the novel text carries linguistic focus and competes with tendencies towards declination.

I determine through a corpus study of performed anaphoras that focus usually “wins” over declination in hip-hop vocal delivery. Having documented the tendencies of “unmarked” focal accents in anaphoric delivery, I analyze three examples of anaphoric delivery with “anti-focal” accents, utterances that descend in pitch despite linguistic focus towards the end, in performances by Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar, and the poet Najee Omar. In my readings, anti-focal accentuation is a marked performance practice that bolsters assertions of individuality and autonomy. Ultimately, I have three aims in sharing this work: continuing to explore aspects of pitch organization in the rapping voice, drawing hip-hop vocal delivery into musical considerations of schema theory, and presenting analytical methods that can accommodate a variety of recited, rapped, and sung Black vocal practices.