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13 January 2003, Music & AI Colloquium, Dicky Gilbers and Maartje Schreuder

Speaker: Dicky Gilbers and Maartje Schreuder
Title: Music in Optimality Theory
Date: Monday 13 January 2003
Time: 16:00-17:30
Location: Nieuwe Achtergracht 166, room B235, Amsterdam

Jackendoff and Lerdahl (1983) point out the resemblance between the ways both linguists and musicologists structure their research objects. This insight gave rise to the proposal of a formal generative theory of tonal music, in which they describe musical intuition. Above all, insights from non-linear phonology (cf. a.o. Liberman & Prince 1977) led to scores provided with tree structures, indicating heads and dependent constituents in the investigated domains. In this way, composer Lerdahl and linguist Jackendoff bring to life a synthesis of linguistic methodology and the insights of music theory.

In our lecture we pose new arguments for the proposition that every form of temporal ordered behavior, like language and music, is structured the same way (cf. a.o. Gilbers & Schreuder, 2000). In both disciplines the research object is structured hierarchically and in each domain the important and less important constituents are defined. In Lerdahl and Jackendoff's music theory, these heads and dependents are defined by preference rules determining which outputs, i.e., the possible interpretations of a musical piece, are well-formed. Some outputs are more preferred than others. Preference rules, however, are not strict claims on outputs. It is even possible for a preferred interpretation of a musical piece to violate a certain preference rule. This is only possible, however, if violation of that preference rule leads to the satisfaction of a more important preference rule.

This system of violable output oriented preference rules in the music theory leads us to a second investigation of the similarities of language and music, for a practically identical evaluation system, which uses similar well-formedness conditions, can be found in Prince and Smolensky's Optimality Theory (1993). This theory owes a lot to the work of Lerdahl and Jackendoff. In our lecture we will show that in the present state of phonology the resemblance is even more striking than at the time of Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983). On the basis of this great resemblance we will show that insights of music theory can help out in all kinds of phonological issues, like rhythmic variability, restructuring, lengthening and phrasing phenomena.


  • Gilbers, D. & M. Schreuder (2000). Taal en Muziek in Optimaliteitstheorie. TABU 30 1-2: 1-26. (cf. also or
  • Lerdahl, F. & R. Jackendoff (1983). A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England.
  • Liberman, M. & A. Prince (1977). On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm. LI 8. 2: 249-336.
  • Prince, A. & P. Smolensky (1993). Optimality Theory: constraint interaction in generative grammar. Ms., Rutgers Optimality Archive.

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