In my post about The Long And Winding Road I introduced a rather abstract songwriting tip (Ticket 49) which was to have the music reflect the theme of the lyrics in some overarching, profound or hidden way. At the simplest level this is called word (or text) painting or, in broader terms, madrigalism.
Here's a few exploratory thoughts on this with examples from other artists.
The simplest way to make your music reflect your lyrics is word painting - including a few notes or a sound effect that illustrates your lyrics at that point. Think of the keyboard part that follows "visible shivers running down my spine" (1:16) in Watching the Detectives (Elvis Costello) or the cymbal/bell/chime after “sends shivers down my spine” (2:05) in Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen). Pink Floyd have a little bell sound after "Just a little pin-prick" (2:49) in Comfortably Numb and A Day In The Life's “woke up, got out of bed” is preceded by the sound of an alarm clock.
All of these could be classed as icing on the cake and are usually little 'post production touches' (with the exception of Paul's alarm call which was on the original track).
Groove, Timbre, Range
More fundamental to the start of the songwriting process is the letting the lyrics dictate the whole groove of the song.
Iron Maiden give two good examples with the galloping rhythm of Run To The Hills (0:48 onwards) and The Trooper (strangley enough also 0:48 onwards) accompanying tales of Crimean calvary battles and Native American warriors.
Trains also suggest a particular groove as Elvis Presley (Mystery Train) and Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues) can testify. And lyrics can even suggest the timbre and range. Spinal Tap found the perfect way to accompany Big Bottom – play it on THREE bass guitars!
Next, what about ways to embody the mood? Eminem's Lose Yourself captures the claustrophobic battle against obscurity by a constantly pushing rhythm that never escapes the driving D bass note.
Private Investigations (Dire Straits) on the other hand is about a world weary private detective. The track is painfully slow and the always descending, always modulating chord progression (0:53) is like puzzle to be solved.
One Season by The Roches is a tale of love gone sour. Though the tune starts rationally enough but, as the relationship becomes more dysfunctional, so do the backing vocal harmonies (starting around 2:23).
In my own song [Everything Is] Broken I tried to reflect brokenness not only in the lyrics (which are full of broken things from coffee cups and plumbing, to peace treaties and marriages) but in broken vocal phrases and odd time signatures with missing beats. Even the very last word of the song is missing.
More fundamental than mood or groove, the lyrics can shape the very melody that supports them. The ever rising "Love lift us up where we belong" in the Nitzsche/Sainte-Marie/Jennings hit is one technique that's been around at least since Handel wrote “Every valley shall be exalted...”, but one of the smartest examples must be Roger's and Hammerstein's Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music.
Everyone knows the chorus
Doe- a deer, a female deer
Ray- a drop of golden sun
Me- a name I call myself
Far- a long long way to run
Sew- a needle pulling thread
La- a note to follow so
Tea- a drink with jam and bread
That will bring us back to do oh oh oh
but not everyone knows the context. The song is about musicians practicing their scales. So we have a song about scales using the solfège words for the intervals (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do) where you sing the very intervals you are singing about. Genius.
Chord Progression, Structure
That same kind of literalism can shape the chord progression or even the overall structure. Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen) describes the chord progression he is playing in the lyrics - “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift” just as Cole Porter had done 40 years earlier in Every Time We Say Goodbye, "How strange the change from major to minor". Natasha Beddingfield went for a similar, though less accurate, effect in These Words “Threw some chords together, the combination D-E-F”. (The chords are actually Bb/D, C/E and F but that doesn't quite sing as well!). At the subtle end of the spectrum you have The Long And Winding Road's weary trek to the 'home' chord. At the other end the song becomes a musical in-joke as in 10CC's, I Bought a Flat.
I bought a flat
You're de ninth person to see
To be suspended in a seventh
It's a minor point but gee
Augmented by the sharpness of your
See what I'm going through
Ay to be with you
In a flat by the sea
and Matching Mole's (Robert Wyatt) Signed Curtains doesn't so much break the fourth wall, as demolish the whole house.
Lastly, you can deliberately do the opposite of what your lyrics say. This works best in humour songs or when it serves to reveal something about the subject. Gilbert and Sullivan's pirates bellowing about how quiet and sneaky they are in With Cat-Like Tread (The Pirates of Penzance) only confirms how useless they are. And Mary Poppins, who sings lullabies entitled “Stay Awake” and slides up bannisters, natural goes UP when singing “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go DOWN”.
Conclusion and application
The great thing about this approach is can work in several ways and be employed at different stages of writing and recording.
First it can function as a way to beat the blank page. Rather than just strumming aimlessly with a set of lyrics or a title, ask yourself what kind of groove would suit the concept, what instrumentation, what tempo? Or what melodic shape would the key individual lines naturally take?
The method can also serve to function as what some authors call a 'spine' for your story (or song). Some key idea that give your song a sense of internal logic or identity. Whether it's plain to the listener or not isn't so important. Some things are obvious, some things only reveal themselves on the 10th (or 100th listen) but they do give a unity to the song.
Finally you can just use it as inspiration to add little finishing touches to a mix with sound effects or momentary overdubs.
So to recap, cheat sheet style, consider working on
- Word Painting/sound effects – 'shivers', alarm clocks
- Groove/Timbre/Range – Horses, Trains
- Mood – Lose Yourself, Private Investigations
- Melody Shape – Do Re Mi
- Chord Progression/Structure – Hallelujah, Every Time We Say Goodbye
- Opposites – A Spoonful Of Sugar
Know any other examples of these techniques?
Have you used them successfully in your own songwriting?
Leave me a comment!
Thanks to everyone on FAWM, MattBlick.com and Twitter who suggested ideas and songs for this post, especially Ashley Chittock, Cheekmeat, Rod Johnson, Nancy Rost , David Hendricks, Thomas Spademan of Cookiefinger and, of course Wikipedia.