Managing Melody and Words at the Same Time

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So, this subject looks fairly straightforward. It’s what we do every time we sing. There’s the words and the tune, and doing them both at once makes a song. What’s the big mystery?

I’ve had two coaching experiences over the summer that drew my attention to the somewhat different imperatives of and modes of engagement we have with, respectively, linguistic and melodic shapes. I’ve written around these areas before when considering how to deal with over-articulation, or the particular challenges that face people singing in their second language, but new experiences of a particular issue shed new light on it, so I’m finding it useful to have another think about it. Actually, neither experience is new (I come across this question pretty frequently) - it was the juxtaposition that was telling.

The first experience was the loss of resonance on linguistically-unimportant words I was working on with the Belles of Three Spires. Words like ‘the’ and ‘of’, or unaccented syllables based on neutral vowels slip through our brains without catching when we speak. They’re an important part of the structure of what we say, but they tend not to define the specific content, so they tend not to be marked for consciousness. As a result, if we are caught up in the story we are telling in song, we sometimes neglect to give them the same quality of musical attention we give the more positively-vowelled and metrically prominent syllables that define the nouns and verbs. But they need just as singerly a placement and resonance for the harmonic and melodic integrity of the music to work.

The second was with Cheshire Chord Company, exploring a passage where the basses supporting a static melody with a line that swept up through an octave of significant melodic interest. This was initially feeling a bit clunky, and I wondered if the words were getting in the way. So we had them sing it to ya-ya-ya-ya and found a wonderful sense of shape.

But this got lost when the words went back in. So, is it that the vowels are too disparate? We took out the consonants, and got the vowels much more in line. This was certainly worth doing anyway, but it didn’t produce the sense of sweep and flow we’d had to ya-ya-ya-ya. When you take the consonants out, of course, you are still using the linguistic part of the brain: it is a good exercise to develop continuity of sound and consistency of resonance without the articulation getting in the way, but you are still using the memory of the words to generate the sounds. This suggested that it was the language-processing that was forming the obstacle.

And at this point, I realised that the main thing impeding flow was the word ‘the’, on the last beat of the bar, on a note that was melodically en passant*. It was being sung with a wonderful resonance, but it was making its presence felt too strongly for its linguistic status. ‘The’ - when pronounced with a schwa - always operates anacrusically. So, this was almost the inverse problem to the one I had been working on with the Belles, and was solved by asking the basses to keep the continuity of sound, but make the word as linguistically unimportant as it would be in speech.

I have to say, I found this whole diagnostic process both fascinating and rewarding. When working with groups like these who have good fundamental vocal craft, so much of the detail is about how they are representing the music to themselves internally. One approaches it with all kind of things for people to do, but what you are trying effect is a tweak in how they are thinking. And getting inside the bits that aren’t quite working yet doesn’t half make you appreciate the complexity and subtlety of what people are doing as a matter of course.

*I’m not trying to be poncy by using this turn of phrase. It’s just that it wasn’t, technically, a passing-note, since it was approached by step, but was followed by a small leap. So, expressively, it had the quality of in-between-ness, without actually being passing in the strict sense.

Which only goes to show how good really GOOD songwriting is. Good songwriting is when we don't have this clunky mismatch between lyrics and melody.


PS It's also why I almost exclusively sing in foreign languages with few words and lots of vowels!

Good point!

It's interesting with singing in foreign languages. If you don't speak the language at all, it can be very musically freeing, but if you speak it moderately well, you sometimes get the linguistic bit of the brain getting even more intrusive as it tries to get involved but has to work harder than for your native tongue.

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