Words and Music 1 Words Matter

Words matter. I start there because sometimes I think composers forget it. Sometimes I think that singers forget it too. Sometimes I think that if I were the author of a libretto or song lyric I would wonder where my words had gone when I hear them sung.

As a composer myself I would be mortified if an author felt that their words had disappeared in my musical setting. I’m not sure, though, that all composers do feel like that. And I’m not sure that singers always care if the listener has any idea what the words they are singing are intended to express. No, that’s unkind. I know they would like their words to be understood and try hard to ensure they are. But sometimes the only way we get meaning is from facial expression (smiley face, sad face, quivering desire etc).

The problem for both the singer and the composer is one of prioritisation. For the singer (whatever the style or genre) vocal production – creating the right sound – is often the driving concern, closely linked to stylistic considerations and notions of authenticity (what John Potter calls ‘vocal authority’)1. Textual clarity is inevitably pushed into second place. For the composer the problems are more complicated.

Unlike the singer, the composer begins with a clean slate. There are far more choices open to them. If the composer’s priority is really clarity of text, the option is always there to have the text spoken with a minimum of musical interference. But then what would be the point of having singers? As soon as the choice is made to sing the text, its clarity begins to be reduced. A set of options opens up offering a sliding scale of degrees of intelligibility. At one end chanted text, syllabic and monotonic (perfectly clear); at the other end angular, fragmented vocalisation or elongated melisma (unintelligible). In between these extremes are various degrees of melodic, homophonic and polyphonic writing, all of which need to be handled with great care if even the smallest amount of intelligibility of text is to be preserved.

Is the composer’s first priority clarity of text, though? Usually not. Start at the beginning: why is the composer composing with words? Not because a text has demanded music (even if the composer tells you otherwise in the programme note). Not because the songwriter has a message to convey to the world (even in a ‘protest song’). The starting point is the need or desire to create vocal music. Vocal music needs words.   The words may come before the music, but they are not the reason for the music.

Different composers adopt different attitudes towards this question. Leonard Cohen, poet and singer, makes heavy use of the monotone in his songs, because getting all the words across is important to him. Two consecutive notes at the same pitch would be out of the question for some composers, however. For Brian Ferneyhough, the meaning of the text must be extracted by other means than merely listening.   Between these extremes, there can be an element of the emperor’s new clothes. We are constantly told that a composer has striven for intelligibility, when the reality is that words are intelligible only when one knows already what they are. That’s why opera houses use sur-titles, and why recital programmes often contain full printed texts.

But if words matter, we should be able to do better. Our relationship with text should go beyond finding the required number of notes to fit the words and hoping for the best. Music can support text and can comment on text. It can join with and recompose text. There are many ways to clothe this particular cat (I’m not keen on skinning them). I have been exploring these avenues my entire working life and continue to do so. Over the coming months I am planning to describe some of my working methods in a bit of detail, in case anyone else might find them useful.

– Roger Marsh


[1] Potter,J. Vocal Authority. CUP 1998






4 responses to “Words and Music 1 Words Matter”

  1. John Potter Avatar

    Huge and wonderful topic! I once played played Sterndale Bennett’s German songs to students and they thought they were ‘Lieder’ by Mendelssohn. The following week the same songs in English were reckoned to be trite Victorian rubbish. Whatever composer and performer may have in mind, the listener lives on an unknown planet (and a concert hall might contain an entire universe). As a singer of early music I often find myself singing in Latin, which is fortunately understood by almost nobody as the literal meaning of many of the texts would render them unperformable, so I can happily invent my own meanings using the language to articulate the notes and the listeners create theirs too. As a ‘classical’ singer there are constraints on the kinds of texts I can sing though. The stylised generic sound of a trained ‘tenor’, ‘soprano’ or whatever pretty well rules out vernacular texts (as the dire assaults on pop songs by opera singers demonstrate). I’d love to be able to sing pop songs but the closest I can get is to ask rock musicians to set a text (a different concept from writing ‘lyrics’). The composer can – at least in theory – start with a clean slate, but the ‘classical’ singer’s slate usually has a whole lot of stuff on it that you can’t erase very easily.

  2. davidbreslin101 Avatar

    This is something I feel strongly about but have never heard articulated quite this clearly before. I suspect it’s one reason I shifted sideways from “composer of vocal music” to “songwriter.” Whenever I set a poem in English to music, it seemed only fair to make the words as clear as possible. This ruled out or made tricky many kinds of musical device, and made the idea of writing my own “text” simultaneously with the music too tempting to resist. And yet, I certainly have no objection to hearing complex polyphonic Latin settings!

  3. Roger Marsh Avatar

    Thanks David. You have always been sensitive to words in music. You also have another strength: you can write a good melody. That’s also quite rare.

  4. Paul Barker Avatar

    I am a bit late coming to this, but only just came across it. I am currently writing my second edition of Composing for Voice for Routledge, enlarged and improved I hope!

    I have a whole chapter on composers and text, exploring different composers attitudes to intelligibility (along with some singers). If any of you would cope with some suggestions from me, i should love to share some thoughts, to see how they fit you, Roger and you John in particular, since I know you both and love your work!

    Best wishes to you!

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