Sunday, May 17, 2009

Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

Last week I started to pick up on a discussion about stage presence for singers that began in the comments section of my post Getting the most out of your choir: preparing for performance PART 1.

This week I want to look at the second aspect of that discussion: where the ‘meaning’ of a song might reside, and how that affects the way we sing it.

song lyrics

First off, I need to ’fess up that I’m not particularly a ‘lyric person’. Sometimes I have been listening to a song for years before I actually realise what it’s about! I respond to the whole package of sounds: syllables, music, harmonies – rather to any single element. I’m not that interested in storytelling songs, but just in the emotion and sensation or feeling that a song conveys.

I believe that songs are very different beasts from, say, poems. Any ‘meaning’ that a song expresses is carried pretty much entirely by sound (which is why I’m not that excited by choral performance – see What are you looking at?), I don’t need to see the singers. The sung ‘words’ (syllables, vocalises, ‘ahs’, whatever) and the music (melody, harmony, dynamics, etc.) form an indivisible whole. Which is why most song lyrics do not work as written poetry, and why some melody lines are pretty boring without the singing voice.

Personally I am not interested in “communicating the sense of the text”. The text is simply one component of the music and its meaning can be subverted, obscured, emphasised, destroyed, or changed at will. Any song can be expressed in a variety of ways (otherwise there would be no such thing as a cover version!). So what is it that guides us to present a song in a particular way? Is it the ‘meaning’ of the text, the ‘heart and soul’ of the song, the ‘emotional content’? And who decides what these are? And why are there so many different answers?

words and music

When commenting on my earlier post, Tom introduced his notion of the ‘heart and soul of the music’ and suggested that this was connected with the “textually connected singer who has created a specific story-based purpose for singing”. The implication here is that the ‘meaning’ or ‘heart and soul’ of any song lies in its ‘text’.

I responded by asking about songs which had simplistic foreign lyrics, nonsense syllables or just ‘ahs’. Tom replied thus:

“Most (or at least ‘much’) of the choral music out there has text and music. The music usually (or ‘often’) attempts to communicate the sense of the text – either through particular rhythms, harmonies, melodies, voice leading, chordal progressions, or textual settings. Thus, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Loch Lomond’ have a similar feel, but both are very different from a Mozart ‘Gloria’ or a celebratory African ‘freedom song’. And ‘Happy Birthday’ is different from your usual ‘Requiem’.

“Perhaps the clearest example would be the difference between ‘Weep, O Mine Eyes’ (Weep, O Mine Eyes on YouTube) and ‘In These Delightful Pleasant Groves’ (In These Delightful Pleasant Groves on YouTube). There are HUGE differences in the above, and they have mainly to do with the textual meaning and the musical communication of that meaning. (Or, if the music was written first, then the text attempts to fit the music.)

“Do you agree with the above?”

Well, sorry Tom, but I don’t! I guess the first problem for me is that you limit our discussion to ‘choral music’ whereas I thought we were talking about singing in its widest sense. In any case, I can present ‘Danny Boy’ in the style of a Mozart ‘Gloria’ or ‘Loch Lomond’ as an African ‘freedom song’. Or vice versa. For some wonderful examples of this, see the Spooky Men’s Chorale on the Australian music show Spicks and Specks or the Bulgarian Women’s Choir on the Tonight Show. I’ve often used songs in theatre shows and completely changed the usual context and style to serve the performance. Although I haven’t used ‘Happy Birthday’ as a ‘Requiem’ I have used the jazz standard ‘All of me’ as a song of suicidal despair!

I’m not familiar with ‘Weep, O Mine Eyes’ or ‘In These Delightful Pleasant Groves’ but I tracked down a couple of versions and yes, they appear to be different. I wouldn’t say that they were HUGELY different and I didn’t pay any attention to the words (but hey, that’s just me!).

You then go on to say that nonsense syllables and ‘ahs’ can also be imbued with meaning, it doesn’t just have to be recognisable text.

song interpretation

Tom then says:

“I think we might be actually agreeing more than we even know, because you might be just letting the music guide your ‘interpretation’, while I let the words lead. However, since (I believe) they are intricately tied, in many songs it won’t matter which you let lead since they’re both ‘telling the same story’.”
The clue here is in Tom’s use of the word ‘interpretation’. How do we interpret a particular song? What clues do we use to discover how we might decide to sing or present a particular song? Tom clearly uses the ‘text’ (or lyrics) and believes that somehow they are used to tell a ‘story’. The expression of this ‘story’ is somehow the ‘meaning’ of the song and that is what guides his instructions to the singers and the way that the song is performed.

I, however, sing mainly foreign songs, many of which have no clear ‘meaning’ and even if they did, cultural differences would mean that we might not want to express that meaning in the same way as the songwriter originally intended. I know quite a few Eastern European love songs which sound more like a call to arms!

I go entirely on the ‘feel’ of the song, that is the emotional and physical (hairs on the back of the neck) effects that it has on me personally as an entire piece of music: words, melody, rhythm and harmony. It is a gut instinct and I have to be affected immediately or a song just doesn’t speak to me. Another person may have an entirely different response, it is very personal. Then, when I am working on the song with singers, I use everything at my disposal to help them present the song so it has the desired effect on me, their only audience at the rehearsal stage. I then trust (and hope!) that it will have the same effect on the audience at our next concert. I might make up a story or use visual imagery or invoke technical vocal exercises – I’ll use anything as long as it gets the job done.

the tyranny of text

Sometimes people can get far too hung up on the text and its meaning, especially if it is in English. Occasionally, even if it’s just for fun, it’s good to play around with a song just to see what happens. An actor knows this as ‘the tyranny of the text’ which can sometimes inhibit good acting. We need to free ourselves from any strict adherence to what we think a song might mean and how it should be presented in order to explore all of its many nuances. We then have choices which we can make rather than being a slave to what we think might be the case.

I sometimes hear people say things like: “That’s not what the composer intended” or “What the playwright means here is …” or “My character wouldn’t do that”. But we are not usually the composer or the playwright and have no idea really what they intended. All we (usually) have are words and notes on a piece of paper (or a scratchy field recording), but no matter how accurate and detailed the writer was, this notation can never encapsulate everything that the author intended. If it could, there would only ever be one, canonical performed version of every single piece of music ever written!

Since we can never know exactly what the author intended, we have to fall back on our own instincts and detective abilities. We are possibly living in a different time, a different place and presenting our song in a different context to when and where it was written, and we have to take that into account too. We must learn to be playful and not too respectful of a song’s lyrics or meaning!

playing with songs

Sometimes in rehearsal I might play around with a song and try it in as many ‘wrong’ ways as possible. For example, if a song seems sad, I might ask people to sing it as if it were a very happy, light-hearted song. If a song is clearly a folk song, I might ask people to sing it as if it were high opera.

Recently I was rehearsing a song which I know to be a lullaby from Croatia (although the ‘feel’ that I get from the song wouldn’t have told me that). Just for fun, to loosen the song up, and to help tighten the (difficult) harmonies, I asked the singers to present it as a funky jazz song in a smoky late-night club. The song was immediately energised and more accurate than before! As a rehearsal tool it worked because when we went back to the original way of presenting the song, it sounded much better. But … we had also discovered an interesting and novel way of presenting the material which we will now try out in our next performance.

not knowing what you’re singing

So, in short, I believe that there are two kinds of people in this world: those for whom lyrics and their meaning is very important, and those who don’t really pay attention to lyrics at all. There is room for both kinds of person, but neither one will persuade the other that their approach is the ‘right’ one.

There are people in my choir who, as soon as I first introduce a new song, ask me what it means: “what’s it about?”. They can’t contemplate singing until they know what it is that they are singing about. Then there are other people who you can teach a song to who don’t understand a single word of the foreign lyrics, but who soon get into the ‘feel’ of the song and bring it to life.

Finally, I just want to mention an article I read recently about the latest CD from the Manic Street Preachers: Journal for Plague Lovers. They have just finished writing and recording a set of songs using lyrics written by Richey Edwards who vanished in 1995. The article said that some of the songs contained “lyrics not even the performers understand”. And they wrote the songs!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: