How do RTL languages work for lyrics to music?
June 15, 2009 5:44 PM   Subscribe

What happens at the intersection of musical notation (written left to right) and languages written right to left?

Modern musical notation is, to the best of my knowledge, essentially universal. Lyrics are notated so that each syllable is depicted beneath the note to which it is sung. How are lyrics written for music when the lyrics are in RTL languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, or Urdu?

I suppose the syllables could be written in the reverse of their usual order but I think it would be quite distracting to sing, for example, "Happy birthday to you," if it looked something like "you to -day birth- -py Hap-".

Are poems that are set to music written in one direction as spoken verse and another as lyrics?
posted by ricochet biscuit to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well, things that I've seen that use languages that are written right-to-left or in other ways follow the same syllable to note convention. That said I've mainly seen things that are transliterated, but I do recall seeing Chinese and Hebrew characters under conventional notation. I'm sure it's weird to a native speaker, but western musical notation is fixed as being read left-to-right so that's just the way it goes.
posted by ob at 6:22 PM on June 15, 2009

This doesn't totally capture it, but in part:

"The setting of vocal texts is beyond the scope of this proposal; however, there are no known bi-directional implications of Western Musical Notation. When combined with right-to-left texts, in Hebrew or Arabic for example, the music notation is still written left-to-right as usual, the words being divided into syllables and placed under or above the notes in the same fashion as Latin scripts. The individual words or syllables corresponding to each note, however, are written in the dominant direction of the script."
posted by kch at 6:27 PM on June 15, 2009

There's an old and interesting thread regarding this onChoralnet.

Specifically regarding Hebrew, there does exist RTL script on standard bars as illustrated , but for the most part, you'll see things along the lines of text transliterated into Latin characters like this.

Also, Hebrew has a builtin musical notation. I can't remember the details (I'll be doing some research now!) but learning it made my Bar Mitzvah hell.
posted by zerokey at 6:33 PM on June 15, 2009

Hebrew's built-in musical notation is called trope or cantillation, and it's not musical notation in the usual sense. There are symbols that represent particular patterns of notes, but you can't create any particular sound out of them, and even the patterns are very dependent on particular traditions and a whole host of other things.

What I have usually seen for nontransliterated Hebrew words under music is standard notation, with the Hebrew words broken up into syllables which are then arranged from left to right. It's quite confusing to read for someone used to ordinarily-written Hebrew.
posted by likedoomsday at 6:39 PM on June 15, 2009

In some of the siddurim I've seen, the music is printed separately from the words and it is up to the reader to determine how the text and the music correspond. Many siddurim, of course, have no music at all.
posted by Electrius at 6:39 PM on June 15, 2009

sorry..I completely borked my links above, but you get the gist
posted by zerokey at 6:40 PM on June 15, 2009

With regards to trope -- that's a notation only used to chant biblical passages.

As far as singing Hebrew songs, I'm not absolutely certain (even though I did it for years!) As several people noted, often you can just put the Hebrew in transliteration: English characters phonetically spelling the Hebrew. Otherwise, I think you'd break up the Hebrew syllables and put them, out of order, under the music.

I can say, however, that music is never reversed in direction to go right to left. At least not that I have ever, ever seen.
posted by davidnc at 8:00 PM on June 15, 2009

Specifically regarding Hebrew, there does exist RTL script on standard bars as illustrated , but for the most part, you'll see things along the lines of text transliterated into Latin characters like this.

Just to be clear, the Hebrew text in this image is not song lyrics, but theoretical analysis of a fugue.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:25 AM on June 16, 2009

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