Research in metrics

by Bruce Hayes and colleagues


Metrics is a branch of linguistics that studies how conventionalized rhythmic patterns are manifested in rhythmic material.  Metrists study canonized verse like the work of Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but they also study non-canonized forms like folk song and popular forms such as rock lyrics or rap.  It's the scientific questions that are at the core of the field, though of course metrists have always tended to study the verse that they enjoy.

Metrics interfaces both with the theory of phonology and with the theory of musical rhythm.  I do metrics partly because I like it, and partly because metrics offers a fairly tight, controlled domain for linguistic theorizing, particularly for areas like phonological representation, the architecture of grammar, gradient well-formedness, and learnability.  In these papers my colleagues and I have tried to bring metrical evidence to bear on questions in all of these areas.

Here is a directory of papers, downloadable from this site, that I've written both alone and with collaborators.

I've also taught courses in metrics at UCLA, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

"Quatrain Form in English Folk Verse"

by Bruce Hayes and Margaret MacEachern.   Published in Language 64, 473-507 (1998).


Quatrains in English folk verse are governed by laws that regulate the patterns of truncation (non-filling of metrical positions) at the ends of lines. Each of the possible truncation patterns (we claim 26) is adhered to consistently through multiple stanzas and defines a verse type. The descriptive goal of this article is to account for why these and only these truncation patterns exist.

Our crucial hypothesis is that the function of truncated lines is to render salient certain layers in the natural constituency of the quatrain, that is, the line, the couplet, or the quatrain as a whole. It is impossible to render all three salient at once, so the saliency constraints conflict. Moreover, each saliency constraint also conflicts with ordinary constraints of metrics, which require the filling of the available metrical positions with appropriate syllables and stresses. The 26 well-formed quatrain types each represent a particular prioritization of the conflicting constraints.

We formalize this in Optimality Theory: the inventory of types is derived as the factorial typology of our constraint set; namely, the set of outputs of all grammars obtained by freely ranking the violable constraints. We also account for differing text frequencies in our data corpus by assigning each constraint a range of possible strengths, and from this develop an Optimality-theoretic account of gradient well-formedness judgments.


to Hayes and MacEachern, "Quatrain Form in English Folk Verse"

Text Appendices

These address issues that could not be addressed in the main text, but cover issues that seem relevant and also perhaps lay to rest issues that might call the main analysis into question. They are formatted together as a single text file, which prints out as 13 pages.

Downloadable Files:

Appendix D:  Help in hearing the rhythm of grids.  This is a little DOS program, called "playgrid.exe", which beeps out the melody and rhythm of metrical grids in the paper.  You may find it helpful if you are among the many readers who have trouble reading grids. 

Sorry, no longer available!  Old version won't run in current Windows, and I've lost the source code.

Appendix E: 27 large machine-generated tableaux demonstrating that the analysis works. Also, for forms involved in section 6 (gradient well-formedness), some ranking arguments are provided.

10:11 AM 9/16/2014

Appendix F:  the constraint violations for all 625 possible candidates.  Simple text format.

Appendix G:  the Our data annotations for the Appalachian folk song database. Old Excel format.


"Are There Lines in Folk Poetry?"

by Bruce Hayes and Margaret MacEachern.  UCLA Working Papers in Phonology 1, 125-142 (1996).


This paper investigates the extent to which the notion “line” in English folk verse can be ascribed theoretical significance. We argue that a line-like constituency imposed on the continuous metrical grid appears to be an empirical necessity: the strictly periodic appearance, on a meter-specific basis, of grid locations where breaks in prosodic structure are required, demonstrates this. The lines thus diagnosed serve important additional structural purposes in defining rhyme schemes and patterns of line-final empty positions.

To this basic point, we add two complications: a discussion of the less-usual cases where prosodic-structure boundaries disagree with line boundaries, and the cases where more than one level of the binary hierarchy could serve as the line level.

Downloadable Files:

PDF Format [click here if you need the free PDF reader]

Sound Files :

The examples in this paper include metrical grids showing the arrangement of syllables in time.  To help the auditory imagination in interpreting these examples, a full set of sound files with the first author chanting the examples may be obtained by clicking here.

"The Role of Phonological Phrasing in Sung and Chanted Verse"

by Bruce Hayes and Abigail Kaun (1996)  Appeared in The Linguistic Review, vol. 13, 243-303.


Downloadable preprint version.  PDF format, 1.5 mB.  [click here if you need the free PDF reader]

Sound examples.  The examples in this paper include metrical grids showing the arrangement of syllables in time.  To help the auditory imagination in interpreting these examples, a full set of sound files with the first author chanting the examples may be obtained by clicking here.

Data:  640 lines of English folksong, from fieldwork by Cecil Sharp and others. Annotated for rhythmic textsetting (16-position grid), stress level, phonological phrasing, and weight of stressed syllables. ASCII text format (view in word processor using Courier font). See full paper for documentation for this data file.


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Last modified September 16, 2014