Sunday, October 07, 2012

What do words add to music?

I caught a scene from the movie Spartacus the other day. The character played by Tony Curtis was asked to perform a song. He then proceeded to speak a poem. What exactly is a ‘song’ then?

dum de dum

You can have music without words, but can you have a song without music? When music is wedded to lyrics, is it greater than the sum of its parts? What do words add to music (and vice versa)?

Music that doesn’t involve the human voice can be powerful, emotional and transcendental. It can change our mood, transport us and energise us.

When music involves the human voice, it doesn’t have to use meaningful words at all (e.g. jazz scat, Sami yoiks, Nigun songs, Baka chants). The voice is used just like any other instrument: for the sounds it makes and not the meaning.

Richly textured songs with complex harmonies might have just one word which has a simple meaning or might even not be in English (e.g. alleluia, mravalzamier, amen).

Spoken poems can by rhythmic, tuneful and often use heightened speech patterns. They can move us, make us want to dance and leave us with a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

What happens when musical melodies and the spoken word are combined? Is there an extra dimension added?

My theory is that music with words (meaningful or otherwise) can be arrived at from two different directions.
  1. poetry and stories become music
  2. music becomes syllables

poetry and rhythm

Poetry and storytelling use simple language, repetition, extended speech patterns, imagery, ambiguity and are often performed rather than simply being written down.

The performance of such works easily become sing-song in their delivery which makes things more dramatic and expressive. It’s an easy journey to imagine melodies being created in this process and used again and again until the performance of a poem or story becomes a fixed song.

In this case the song is almost always performed solo, is usually unadorned (i.e. no harmonies) and unaccompanied (except perhaps for simple percussion or a drone instrument to add atmosphere). This is perhaps how the English ballad tradition arose.

Words and meaning in these songs is of paramount importance. It is vital that the audience understand the poem or story, so we don’t want any distractions.

voice as instrument

In the absence of musical instruments, we can make music with our voices. It begins as improvisation and usually involves the whole group of people. If there are soloists then people take turns and add solos to a rich background of sound made by the rest of the group.

To create a range of different sounds, different vowels and consonants are used. These then make up ‘nonsense words’ which might be repeated. As the group work together harmonies begin to emerge, overlapping voices create polyphony, everyone works closely together.

Over time, such improvisations might be remembered roughly and repeated until they become familiar ‘songs’. As the melodies evolve, recognisable words may even be added or simple poems set. But the emphasis is always on the musical sound rather than the meaning that any words might have.

... and everything in between

Although these might be the origins of two different ways in which songs arose, there is not such a strict distinction between the two types and many songs fall in between the two.

However, most cultures tend towards one or other of the extremes. English and Middle Eastern traditional songs tend to be ballads with little or no harmonising. Georgian and Corsican songs tend to be rich in harmony with few words.

what do you think?

I have to fess up: I’m not really a lyric person. I love songs which use words and syllables for the music they make rather than the meaning that they might contain. Which is why I’m drawn to songs in languages other than English so I can really get my mouth round the different sounds and use them to express myself.

What about you? Do you think my theory of two separate origins of word/ music combination makes sense? Do you prefer one type to the other? Or do you have a theory of your own.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop by and leave a comment.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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