Reading between the lines
Score study is a terrific music activity that adapts well to remote learning for individuals or ensembles.
You don’t need to have a degree in music theory to look more deeply into a piece of music and explore the subtext, which is the implicit meaning behind the text. Great music tells a story. As a lyrical artform, gaining a deeper understanding of the lyrics can help drive more musical delivery, tell a more thrilling/compelling story, and help convey authentic emotions more consistent with the intent of the lyricist.
For example, think about the familiar lyric, “Heart of my heart, I love you.” Consider the depth of love that it conveys. The subject of this song gives the singer’s heart life. The heart is at the center of the wisdom of feeling; this person is what allows the singer to feel and show love, compassion and understanding. Without this person, their life would be empty—nothing (naught).
Let’s think about the song “Stormy Weather.” Here are lyrics from the first section of the verse:
I walk around, heavy hearted and sad. Night comes around, and I’m still feeling bad Rain pouring down, blinding every hope I had. This pitterin’, patterin’, beatin’ and splatterin’ drives me mad!
Lyrics associated with memorable storytelling serve one or more of three purposes:
Tell the story.
These lyrics set the scene (“I walk around”; Night comes around”), telling us what, where, who and when. They advance the plot line.
These lyrics tell the listener how I’m feeling about what’s happening in my story (“heavy hearted and sad”; “and I’m still feelin’ bad”). They give us insight into what’s driving the singer and why this song exists.
Paint with imagery.
Some of the most powerful lyrics stay with us long after the final chord has rung based on the images evoked in the listener’s mind. What kind of rainstorm do you see when you hear “pitterin’, patterin’, beatin’ and splatterin'”? It’s no wonder the singer is being driven mad!
A great exercise would be to go through a piece of music categorizing lyrical phrases as either storytelling, emotional or imagery-based lyrics. Then allow those functions or purposes to drive how you render those in delivering the musical story. Try this with your favorite songs, and see if you notice any trends/similarities in the functions of the lyrics throughout.
About the Author
Steve Tramack is a 4th generation, 38+ year Barbershopper who is an arranger, coach, past International chorus director and quartet singer, and current Music Category Specialist.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of The Harmonizer.