Musical Sense and Poetic Sense

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A criticism levelled at amateur singers* is that their ideas of how to interpret songs are led almost entirely by the lyric with little concept of how to handle musical elements. Indeed, I have myself critiqued approaches to interpretation that are story-led to the exclusion of everything else. But surprisingly often you hear phrasing that cuts across the sense of the lyric – breaths that cut a sentence in two, or commas sung through as if the two clauses belonged together.

I think this happens mostly in places where the surface structures of lyric and music don’t completely coincide. The singers subconsciously parse the phrase structure into its simplest musical structure – and in its extreme form, this comes out in the nursery-rhyme phrasing I wrote about back in October. But there are more sophisticated versions of this. For example:

Time after time
I tell myself that I’m so lucky to be loving you

One of the things that makes this song so expansive in its expression is the way that the short initial motif is unrolled from a tight melodic circle, into a wider one (i.e. one that reaches higher, but comes back to the same place within the same time-frame), and then out into tonally much more adventurous places. The time-I’m internal rhyme is part of how we recognise the development process, since it makes the parallel between the tight and the looser melodic circles very clear. Breathing after ‘I’m’ underlines this parallelism, but cuts it off from its outward spiral. And of course, if you were saying these words to your beloved, ‘I’m’ makes no sense at all for a stopping place. Frank Sinatra breathes all over the place during this phrase, but joins up ‘I’m so lucky’ so that it makes sense.

Another poetic construction that defeats singers quite regularly is the parenthetical clause – a little interruption to expand an idea – which never seems to get both its opening and closing punctuation in performance. The classic example is ‘Love Letters Striaght From Your Heart’:

The night may be moonless
The sky may be starless
But deep in my heart, there’s a glow
For deep in my heart,
I know that you love me –
You love me! – because you told me so

The problem here is the extra ‘You love me!’, which of course is short for ‘My goodness, what a surprise; I am quite boggled to think that you do actually love me!’ If you don’t manage to project the idea that it’s an interruption to the main idea, though, it sounds like the reason she loves is because she told you so, which is complete nonsense. Nat King Cole is really explicit about the punctuation around the extra exclamation, and you can hear how hard he is working to make the main narrative clear. This is possibly rather unhelpful songwriting, but actually it does make sense if only you sing the punctuation.

Parenthetical comments aren’t the only places where people omit commas. Take a chance on:

I’m walking around with a horseshoe in clover I lie

When this is sung as a single line (as here), rather than as two lines, each with its own self-contained meaning (as Renee Olstead does), I always think, ‘Yeah, you’re telling fibs about the vegetation around your horseshoe.’

You don’t have to breathe every time you meet a comma, of course. Singing long phrases can sound great. But you have to at least think the punctuation. Jonathan Rathbone has a nice way of putting this: make the audience think you are about to take a breath, but then carry on without doing so.

Making sense of the music is our primary role as performers, and key to any sense of believability. When you hear a politician give a speech that doesn’t make sense, you think – he’s just reading that without thinking about what he’s saying – and you conclude he must be an idiot. (Well, if it’s a politician, you probably already knew that.) Composers and lyricists are our ghost-writers, giving us the material to move our audiences – but, like politicians, we need to convince them that the message is our own. And we don’t do that by getting the sense of it garbled.

* I’ve heard this criticism most frequently levelled at barbershoppers, but they are by no means the only set of amateur singers to deserve it!

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