Words are all around us. We speak them, we read them, we write them. Sometimes it seems there are too many words in our lives. Words can flow or be stopped up. They can heal or they can devastate. A well-chosen word at the right time makes us feel good; the wrong word can’t be taken back –it’s referred to as having one’s foot in one’ s mouth. Yet words are essential; they are the building blocks of communication. In the right hands, words can create works of beauty and power, such as poems, and the lyrics of songs.
I’ve been preparing a course called “The Art of the Song” and in the process I’m reading many song lyrics. Some of them are so beautiful they can stand alone as poetry. They’re filled with imagery, and they tell a succinct story. For example, Midnight Sun, lyric by Johnny Mercer, begins with this line: Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night/ The clouds were like an alabaster palace, rising to a snowy height. How rare and exciting to find such inventive language. Mercer didn’t settle for tired descriptive phrases but instead reached for something new and fresh.
Another example is Hal David’s lyric to A House Is Not A Home. The song begins by describing the outer world: A chair is still a chair/Even when there’s no one sitting there/But a chair is not a house/And a house is not a home/When there’s no one there to hold you tight/And no one there you can kiss good night. The bridge of the song moves into the inner world of the protagonist: Now and then I call your name/And suddenly your face appears/But it’s just a crazy game/When it ends it ends in tears. The song ends with a hope and a plea: When I climb the stair and turn the key/Oh, please be there still in love with me. He takes us on an emotional journey with a handful of words.
Of course the lyric is only one half of a song’ s magic. The matching of the lyric with a melody is called prosody. In the previous example, the melody of Midnight Sun, written by Sonny Burke and Lionel Hampton, traces chromatic descending lines that describe a sensuous world, matching the lyric perfectly. Burt Bacharach’s melody to A House Is Not A Home begins simply, but his inventive chord progressions and searching melodic line create a haunting effect, especially in the emotional bridge section. In the end, lyric and melody are inextricably intertwined to create a whole world unto itself. That is the miracle of song.
I find it a beautiful practice to take down a book of poetry, choose a poem at random and sing a melody to the words. Taking the emotional content of the poem as a cue, I can give my expressiveness free rein. Another way to meld music and poetry is to write or read a poem with an awareness of the music within. There is music within the sound and rhythm of each word and phrase. When performing poetry, being aware of the melodic and rhythmic qualities of the piece makes the experience more enjoyable for both reader and listener.
If you play an instrument and come across a challenging rhythm as my piano students often do, you might want to try this. I invite my students to write lyrics to these pieces – silly or serious, their choice. Then we sing the song, learning the rhythm as we go. It’s lots of fun and can even be a spring-board for later lyric-writing to original songs.
Words can carry the power and grace of a dove or the devastation of a bomb. In our personal lives our use of language determines the quality of our relationships. As we choose words to pair with music and enter the musicality of words themselves, we multiply their beauty and power. The next time you’re listening, reading, or writing – take a moment to savor the miracle of words.