Music and Lyrics Interactions and their Influence on Recognition of Sung Words: An Investigation of Word Frequency, Rhyme, Metric Stress, Vocal Timbre, Melisma, and Repetition Priming


  • Randolph B. Johnson Ohio State University
  • David Huron
  • Lauren Collister



intelligibility, singing, lyrics, text setting


This study investigated several factors presumed to influence the intelligibility of song lyrics. Twenty-seven participants listened to recordings of musical passages sung in English; each passage consisted of a brief musical phrase sung by a solo voice. Six vocalists produced the corpus of sung phrases. Eight hypotheses derived from common phonological and prosodic principles were tested. Intelligibility of lyrics was degraded: (i) when archaic language was used; (ii) when words were set in melismatic rather than syllabic contexts; (iii) when the musical rhythm did not match the prosodic speech rhythm; and (iv) when successive target words rhymed. Intelligibility of lyrics was facilitated: (i) when words contained diphthongs rather than monophthongs; (ii) when a word from an immediately previous passage reappeared; (iii) when a syllabic setting of a word was preceded by a melismatic setting of the same word. No difference in word intelligibility was observed between music theater singers and opera singers.