Pat's Lyric Tips

Wittgenstein, Ordinary Language, and Songwriting

"The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once." 

—Renee Descartes 1596-1650

My world shifted forever one Tuesday afternoon, decades ago, in Bob Baker’s Philosophy 1 class at the University of Minnesota. Bob was making a case for Descartes’ distinction between Appearance and Reality, and my head was swimming a bit. “The evidence of your senses only tells you how YOU experience it, not what it really is. The size, shape, color, smell, texture of a wax candle all depend on the observer. But what is it really? What lies behind the appearances?”

 

I was disoriented. When I left the classroom, walking out into a sunny Minnesota Fall afternoon, standing right in front of me was a stately Elm – dark bark, outstretched branches glistening in the sunlight. It suddenly didn’t look real. It had lost its identity as an ordinary tree and became an object with properties and a mysterious, invisible substance lying behind all the appearances, making them possible. I realized that all I could do was experience “properties,” that what it really was, was denied to me. I couldn’t know the real thing. And I was hooked.

 

I spent my undergraduate years diving into every philosophy course I could. By the time I graduated, I had not only exhausted the undergraduate courses, but I’d taken most of the graduate seminars (except, of course, for anything dealing with Existentialism. Seemed like sloppy stuff. Not interested.) Along the way I was introduced by John Visvader, a teaching assistant there, to the philosophical works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a proponent of what was called “ordinary language” philosophy. He made a lot of sense. I hereby apologize for the following Wiki quote, though I’ve taken some editing liberties with it:

The sea-change brought on by Wittgenstein’s unpublished work in the 1930s centered largely on the idea that there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that many traditional philosophical problems were only illusions brought on by misunderstandings about language and related subjects.

Wittgenstein held that the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses, which is why philosophers trip over words taken in abstraction. Philosophy had gotten into trouble by trying to understand words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language.

 

For example: What is reality? Philosophers have treated reality as a noun denoting something that has certain properties. For thousands of years, they had debated those properties. Ordinary language philosophy instead looks at how we use the word reality in everyday language. In some instances, people will say, "It may seem that X is the case, but in reality, Y is the case". This expression is not used to mean that there is some special dimension of being where Y is true, although X is true in our dimension. What it really means is, "X seemed right, but appearances were misleading in some way. Now I'm about to tell you the truth: Y". That is, the meaning of "in reality" is more akin to "however". And the phrase, "The reality of the matter is ..." serves a similar function — to set the listener's expectations. Further, when we talk about a "real gun", we aren't making a metaphysical statement about the nature of reality; we are merely opposing this gun to a toy gun, pretend gun, imaginary gun, etc.

 

Wittgenstein’s method requires a careful attention to language in its normal use, thus "dissolving" philosophical problems, rather than attempting to solve them. 

Wittgenstein would probably call my experience of the Elm as unreal, a case of “language gone on a holiday.” Did I think someone had done a paper-maché sculpture that looked exactly like a living tree? Was I suspicious that someone was creating a 3-D projection of an Elm? Was I unsure whether I’d just walked onto a Hollywood movie set? 

 

Those would be ordinary reasons to use the language of real and unreal or fake – how we’ve learned to use these words. In our ordinary language real and unreal are used to contrast one event or experience with another. When you take them out of that context to a place where there is no contrast  – in “everything we experience is an illusion,” for example, there is no possible contrast to unreal – the use of the word evaporates and you are left wondering what the unseen, real world could be made of. We still feel the drive of the word to evoke a contrast, but we’ve taken it out of a context where one is available. The language has gone on a holiday.

 

Of course, it took me years of study (3 years as a U of M undergraduate, 4 years of graduate study at Indiana University, including a Master’s in Literary Criticism from the Kenyon School of Letters) to follow the trail and find, a la Wittgenstein, the source of the mystery. 

But the journey, in Eliot’s words,

        …was (you might say) satisfactory.

 

The phrase “How is that word used in Ordinary Language?” became a mantra for me, and it remains with me today. I want to understand how the language is used, where it’s meant to be used. And I’m fascinated by the consequences of exporting language to unfamiliar places. It’s sometimes very exciting (for example, its role in creating metaphor) and sometimes not, when the word’s function in the language evaporates and it seems both to mean something and not mean anything at the same time.

 

I spent six years teaching Philosophy, both at Indiana University as a Teaching Associate and The University of Notre Dame as faculty, during which time my interest began to shift to music, then to the crack between music and poetry – songwriting. I’ve been teaching lyric writing and poetry for the last 4 decades at Berklee College of Music, during which time the mantra “How is that word used in Ordinary Language?” has leaked into my teaching of songwriting and poetry, morphing into the shiny new, but fundamentally related, mantra: “Preserve the natural shape of the language.”

 

“Is that tree real?” loses its meaning when real is wrenched out of its natural habitat in Ordinary Language. The same thing happens when we allow either musical rhythms or poetic rhythms to overpower the natural shape of words and phrases. We lose meaning. We lose emotion. 

 

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The Ordinary Languages of Words and Music

Some people think they've got it rough shopping for their ideal mate. Kid stuff. Songwriters are the ones who really suffer, because whether or not we're happily married, we are eternally condemned to keep searching for the perfect match every time we join a word to a note. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. And even when a match is perfect, we know we'll be back on the streets one syllable/note later, eyes open, determined, hopeful. Perhaps Wittgenstein and I can offer some succor to the tormented songwriter.

 

Words and notes start with something in common: both belong to dynamic communities of stressed and unstressed members. The trick is to match each with their own type, stressed notes with stressed syllables, unstressed with unstressed. Recognizing which is which is sometimes easy, sometimes an art: depending partly on the words and notes themselves, partly on their context.

 

Look at a bar of 4/4 time. The first half-note is stronger than the second, though they are both stressed.

"Bridegroom" would fit the bar perfectly: both syllables are stressed but the first syllable is stronger:

A perfect match. Now look at the phrase "Please darling, come back." "Come back" is the opposite of "bridegroom." Again, both syllables are stressed, but now the second is stronger.

 

            come báck

 

Setting come báck like "bridegroom" would be poor prosody -- the musical stresses and the syllables' stresses would be opposite.

Not that a poor match breaks any mythical rules; it just sounds unnatural. We lose the illusion of a real person making a real statement, deflating the emotion of the language and distracting the listener. This is crucial: a song is simply natural speech, exaggerated.

 

If you said, "Most defeated lovers, sooner or later, dream of making a comeback," then "comeback" would be stressed like "bridegroom."

A perfect match. 

Recognizing Word Stresses

Syllables are the basic building blocks of all language. If you're not used to dividing words into syllables, check your dictionary. If you don't have one, stop reading and get one. It is a tool of your trade.

 

Words with two or more syllables have an accent mark over one of the syllables, indicates the word's main STRESS. In English, all words of two or more syllables have a primary stress, creating sonic shape (or a "little melody") to help your ear recognize the group as a unit. Stressed syllables are

 

  1. higher in pitch

  2. louder

  3. longer

 

Words of two or more syllables have a little melody, with the stressed syllable "on the beat."

 

Pronounce the word "incision" as naturally as you can five times. Now, slow down and listen to yourself. Hear differences between syllables. "Ci" is higher, louder, and longer than the other two.

 

               ci


            in     sion

 

Multi-syllable words are easy because we agree on them. They're listed in our book of agreements -- the dictionary.

 

So how about one-syllable words, the staple of English and especially of lyrics? Don't bother looking in the dictionary; it doesn't mark one-syllable words.

 

One-syllable words are stressed when they have an important job to do, like delivering a message. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all get sweaty because they work hard, like these:

 

            track   list   risk   luck   slick   hard   stem   strip

 

Unstressed one-syllable words mostly just stand there and hold signs to show the workers where to go. They don't sweat.

 

Like these:

 

            prepositions (e.g., of, to, on, toward),

            articles (e.g., a, an, the), 


            conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but), 


            auxiliary verbs indicating tense (e.g., have run, had run),


            auxiliary verbs indicating mood (e.g., might run, may run), 


            personal pronouns (e.g., I, him, their),


            relative pronouns (e.g., which, who, when)

 

Of course, any of them can be stressed when a contrast is involved.

 

I asked you to throw the ball to me, not at me.


I asked you to throw the ball to me, not to her. 


I asked you to throw the ball, not him.

 

Look at this verse is from Sting. Read it a few times first, then try to mark its accented syllables.

 

            Sink like a stone that's been thrown in the ocean


            My logic has drowned in a sea of emotion


            Stop before you start


            Be still my beating heart

 

Do the easy part first -- find words with more than one syllable:

 

            Sink like a stone that's been thrown in the ocean

            My logic has drowned in a sea of emotion

            Stop before you start

            Be still my beating heart

 

Now get out your sweat detector:

 

            Sink like a stone that's been thrown in the ocean


            My logic has drowned in a sea of emotion


            Stop before you start

            Be still my beating heart

 

Before in line three is interesting: though it contains a stressed syllable, the word itself is a preposition, a sign holder. Don't marry its stressed syllable to a note that works hard. The Stress on before is pretty wimpy. It wouldn't get along with a sweaty note.

 

All the other unstressed words are standing around directing traffic. The rhythms are pretty regular, moving from two lines of triples to two lines of duples:

 

            Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da Dum da


            da Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da Dum da


            Dum da Dum da Dum

            da Dum da Dum da Dum

 

Sometimes, finding stress is harder, especially in strings of one-syllable words with hard-to-judge gray areas. Don't panic. The most important words are usually easy. Let's try.

 

            When I got home the house was dark.

 

Start with the obvious sweathogs.

 

            When I got home the house was dark.

 

"The" and "was" are clearly unstressed. How about When I got?

 

"When" probably isn't stressed. In context, "I" could be stressed if someone else was coming home. "Got" could be stressed if the lights came on (maybe a surprise party) soon afterwards. But most likely, we are looking at da da da Dum da Dum da Dum: When I got home the house was dark.

 

It is quite clear what the first three words are not. They are not the most important words in the phrase -- typical for words in gray areas. Even if some words aren't so clear, you know which ones work the hardest. No problem setting this phrase to music -- just save the stressed beats for the stressed words. Work the gray ones out with a little trial and error.

Recognizing Musical Stress

Whether the lyric is written before, at the same time, or after the music, its syllables are intended to fit with notes. If you are going to match them up, you'll have to know how to tell sweaty notes from dry ones.

 

In a bar of 4/4 time, the first (downbeat) and third quarter-notes are stressed. The second and fourth aren't. This is the same pattern of strong-to-weak established by half-notes.

These words seem to work:

 

            Run to mama

 

Eighth notes create four stressed positions per bar, though 1 and 3 still dominate:

Two-syllable prepositions like "before" and "over" don't work hard enough to put the stress in a strong musical position. The stressed 8th notes of beat two and four fit them perfectly. Not too wet, not too dry.

 

4/4-time is architectonic : it preserves the same pattern (strong-to-weak) through all of its subdivisions, no matter how small -- eights, sixteenths, thirty-seconds, etc. This is important for setting words into measures with rests and mixed note values.

 

Scan this for strong beats:

The triplets in the first four bars are easy, lining up

 

            Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da


            Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da Dum da

 

Bar five runs Dum da Dum da /(Dum), The first stress is an anticipation that adds strength to beat three. The second stress is weaker, anticipating the fourth beat -- a perfect place for a syllable like before. The third stress anticipates a downbeat, making it the strongest position in the phrase.

 

Bars six and seven are the most interesting.

(Dum)/ da Dum da Dum da Dum. The anticipation of beat three is clearly stressed. The anticipation of beat four is, again, less strong. The dotted eighth ending bar six seems unstressed, even though it is tied to a downbeat. In the context of the phrase, it pales with all the strength around it. It is too far away from the downbeat. Similarly, the final cadence is subdued, ending as an anticipation of beat two, though its length gives the note a little extra punch. What words would fit this music? Try these:

Lyricists spend a lot of time trying to match patterns -- word patterns to note patterns, or words to words, like writing a second verse to match a first. What if you had to write another section to match this one by Sting? Look at it closely. Not only should you line up your stressed and unstressed syllables exactly the same, you also should put your most important words in the same places. Look at this try.

 

            Cast deep in silence I can't hold my balance


            My weak heart revealed in a heat born of malice


            Devil haunts my past


            God give me peace at last

 

Let's scan it for stresses:

 

            Cast deep in silence I can't hold my balance


            My weak heart revealed in a heat born of malice


            Devil haunts my past

            God give me peace at last

 

Set to Sting's melody, it looks like this:

Look at all the places where stressed syllables appear in unstressed musical positions. These "greedy" spots sound hurried and unnatural, calling attention away from the emotion of the line. Cool dry spots would have trouble connecting with such sweaty bruisers. It would be a bad match, not to mention bad prosody.

 

How about this one?

 

            Yet in your silence I've just got my balance


            My weakness is now in the place of your malice


            Won't you help me past


            And get me out at last

 

Scan it.

 

            Yet in your silence I've just got my balance


            My weakness is now in the place of your malice


            Won't you help me past

            And get me out at last

This one's too cool. It pretends to say something in all those important musical places, but ends up just sounding overwrought. Enough to lose anyone's interest, especially those sweaty notes hoping for someone to match their passion.

 

Another try:

 

            Lost in your silence I'm losing my balance


            My weakness revealed by the heat of your malice


            Devil in my past


            Oh give me peace at last

 

Scan it.

 

            Lost in your silence I'm losing my balance


            My weakness revealed by the heat of your malice


            Devil in my past

            Oh give me peace at last

 

Look how it lines up with the music:

Marital bliss. This one is just right, matching the prosody of the original. Note and word stresses match, and the most important words are in the same places. Stressed with stressed, Unstressed with unstressed.

 

Now it's your turn to write a perfect match to Sting's music. Take your time, and write a better one than I did.

 

Happy matchmaking!

Roadmaps: Matching Lyric and Melodic Phrases

My uncle Ed and aunt Edna call me from Maine to invite me to Thanksgiving dinner. Yum. Aunt Edna is a fabulous cook. I love her cranberry and almond stuffing.

 

It isn’t too long a drive up to Maine, though it’ll take at least a couple hours. Uncle Ed says, “Take I-95 all the way. It’s quick. Just get here. We want to see you.” Of course Aunt Edna wants me to have a nice, scenic trip. “When you get to Portland, take 1-A along the ocean. Take your time. It’s a beautiful drive.”

 

And of course I know that the first question they’ll ask is “So, what route did you take?” Whichever answer I give, one of them will stiffen a little. It’s kind of a competition between them. What to do?

 

I can’t follow both routes.


First, watch this video.

 

In the lead song from Lady Antebellum’s self-titled hit album, “Love Don’t Live Here,” they invite us to take a journey. The song contains roadmaps, telling us how to proceed, where to go next, what connects to what, when to pause for a rest, when and where to stop. 

 

Listen to the song here.

Let’s look at their verses. (I’ve omitted the pre-choruses and choruses):

 

Verse One:

 

            Well this heart of mine/has been hardened like a stone

            It might take some time/to get back what has gone

            But I’m moving on/and you don’t hold my dreams

            Like you did before/ and I will curse your name

 

Verse Two:

 

            Well I heard the news/that you were back in town

            Just passing through/to claim your lost and found

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothing that

            You can say or do/to take what you did back

 

(Pre-Chorus/Chorus)

 

Verse Three:

 

            Well baby you can try/to tell me how it is

            And try to justify/ everything you did

            But honey I’m no fool/ and I’ve been down this road

            Too many times with you/ I think it’s best you go

 

(Pre-Chorus/Chorus)

 

Look at the first two lines of verse one, the beginning of our trip:

 

            Well this heart of mine/has been hardened like a stone

            It might take some time/to get back what has gone

 

Let’s focus on the lyric and its roadmap. How does it divide its own ideas?

 

The first line of verse one is a complete idea:

 

            Well this heart of mine/has been hardened like a stone

 

(The “/” indicates that melodically, the line subdivides into 2 phrases.)

 

The second line is also a complete idea,

 

            It might take some time/to get back what has gone

 

Line 2 repeats the melody of line 1, again subdividing into 2 phrases. Thus, the melodies of lines 1 and 2 set up a roadmap: they repeat same melody, indicating that there are two separate, independent musical ideas.

 

But look at the last two lines of verse one:

 

            But I’m moving on and you don’t hold my dreams

            Like you did before and I will curse your name

 

Line 4 repeats the melody of line 3, again subdividing into 2 phrases. Thus, the melodies of lines 3 and 4 set up a roadmap: they repeat same melody, indicating that there are two separate, independent musical ideas.

 

In these lines the melody and lyrics are at odds. They want you to get off at different exits. While the melody still defines a 2-idea group, the lyric ideas are arranged either as

 

            But I’m moving on and you don’t hold my dreams like you did before

            and I will curse your name

 

or perhaps as

 

            But I’m moving on

            and you don’t hold my dreams like you did before

            and I will curse your name

 

Either way, the melody and the lyric create different roadmaps, and the result is confusion. Which map are you supposed to follow? It’s harder to pay attention to what’s being said.

 

Here comes verse two:

 

            Well I heard the news/that you were back in town

            Just passing through/to claim your lost and found

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothing that

            You can say or do/to take what you did back

 

Again, as in verse one, the first two lines work fine-- the musical and lyrical roadmaps work together. But again, in the next two lines, the melody and lyrics are at odds. While the melody still defines two separate ideas, the lyric ideas are arranged as

 

            But I’m over you/

            and there ain’t nothing that you can say or do to take what you did back

 

As in the last two lines of verse one, the melody and the lyric here create different roadmaps, causing confusion and diminishing the impact of the ideas.

 

OK, so what can we do about it?

 

The goal, of course, is that the lyric and melody work together – that they create compatible roadmaps, supporting each other and making the combination stronger than either the lyric or melody alone.

 

In general, there are two strategies for solving these mis-matches:

 

  1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap,

  2. Change the lyric to match the melodic roadmap

 

Let’s work on the last two lines of the first verse:

 

            But I’m moving on/and you don’t hold my dreams

            Like you did before/ and I will curse your name

 

In this case, let’s try changing the lyric to match the melodic roadmap:

 

            But I’m moving on/and you don’t hold my dreams

            Though you did before/ now I curse your name

 

This seems to be a pretty straightforward solution. Now the melodic and lyrical roadmaps support each other. Each one defines a complete idea. They take us on the same road.

 

But there’s also a little trick for you to file away for future travelling, a third technique: try repeating something from the first line at the beginning of the next line:

 

            But I’m moving on/and you don’t hold my dreams

            Hold ‘em like you did before/ and I will curse your name

 

It’s a pretty cool way of bridging the gap in the melody by referring back to the last idea, connecting the lyric phrases with a little reminder of where it’s come from.

 

Let’s add it to our two strategies:

 

  1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap

  2. Change the lyric to match the melodic roadmap

  3. Repeat a word from the first line at the beginning of the next line.

 

Now let’s look at the last two lines of verse two:

 

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothing that

            You can say or do/to take what you did back

 

Here it’s a bit more complicated to change the lyric roadmap, because of the rhyme words.

 

Of course, you could match the lyric’s roadmap to the melody by finding different rhymes and lines. Maybe something like:

 

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothing left

            No matter what you do/there’s no way I’ll forget

 

Instead of changing the lyric, you could try altering the melodic journey slightly. Perhaps delaying “that” a little by holding out “nothing” a little more, placing “that” between the lines to create a smoother pivot between the 2 ideas:

 

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothiiiing

            (thaaat)

            You can say or do/to take what you did back

 

This changes the melodic roadmap by blurring the division between the two independent melodic lines, thus matching the “through-written” character of the lyric.

 

This maight be a perfect place to try the third strategy – repeating that:

 

            But I’m over you/ and there ain’t nothing that

            That you can say or do/to take what you did back

 

This third strategy is a pretty useful tool and works frequently enough that it qualifies as a viable technique for matching melodic phrases and lyric phrases:

 

  1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap

  2. Change the lyric to match the melodic roadmap

  3. Repeat a word from the first line at the beginning of the next line.

 

Here’s the third verse of “Love Don’t Live Here:”

 

            Well baby you can try/to tell me how it is

            And try to justify/ everything you did

            But honey I’m no fool/ and I’ve been down this road

            Too many times with you/ I think it’s best you go

 

The lyrical and melodic roadmaps of the first two lines, again, match pretty well. But in the next two lines, the same problem rears up again:

 

            But honey I’m no fool/ and I’ve been down this road

            Too many times with you/ I think it’s best you go

 

(At least they’re consistent, mis-matching the roadmaps of lines three and four in each verse.)

 

The lyrical roadmap is,

 

            But honey I’m no fool

            and I’ve been down this road too many times with you

            I think it’s best you go

 

This is nothing like the melodic roadmap. Maybe try rearranging the phrases a bit:

 

            Too many times with you/ I’ve been down this road

            But honey I’m no fool/ I think it’s best you go

 

Or maybe, a little less awkwardly,

 

            Well I’ve been down this road/ too many times with you

            I think it’s best you go/ ‘cause honey I’m no fool

 

Here, repeating a word at the end of the first line and the beginning of the next won’t work.

 

Creating compatible roadmaps melodically and lyrically is essential to getting maximum meaning and impact from your song. Ignoring mis-matched roadmaps creates a fourth option:

 

  1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap, or

  2. Change the lyric to match the melodic roadmap, or

  3. Repeat a word from the first line at the beginning of the next line.

  4. Keep it the way it is, since no one listens to lyrics anyway

 

Sticking with number 4 is a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you arrange your phrases believing that matching the lyrical and melodic roadmaps doesn’t matter, you’ll be right. No one will listen to the lyrics anyway.

 

If you try to follow both maps, you’ll end up not knowing where you are. Your listener, in the presence of conflicting sets of directions, will be thinking about something other than what you’re saying, and may never get to taste Aunt Edna’s special recipe for cranberry stuffing.

 

Your choice.

Setting Words To Music

Let’s take a look at the first section of a Katy Perry song, “Unconditionally.”

 

Listen to the song here.

 

Here’s the lyric:

 

            Oh no, did I get too close?

            Oh, did I almost see?

            What’s really on the inside?

 

            All your insecurities

            All the dirty laundry

            Never made me blink one time

 

            Unconditional, unconditionally

            I will love you unconditionally…

 

Say the first line several times without listening to yourself. Then slow it down and listen to your pitches. Say it like you’re talking to someone who just pulled away from you. I’ll wait.

 

            Oh no, did I get too close?

 

 

For me, listening to my higher and lower spoken pitches, it comes out as:

 

            Oh NO, did I get TOO CLOSE?

 

But look at the musical setting:

First, the natural stresses of “Oh no” are reversed. In speech, “no” is more stressed (higher pitch) than “oh.” The placement of “oh” on the downbeat and ‘No” on the 3rd beat makes it sound like we’re addressing John Lennon’s wife by her last name, “Ono.”

 

Next, “did” is puffing up its chest on the downbeat of bar 2, “get” is anticipating beat 3, and “too,” the intensifier (thus stressed) is shoved into the dark corner of beat 4. The result is the unnatural:

 

            OH no, DID i GET too CLOSE?

 

Say it a few times, and compare it to the ordinary language version.

 

See?

 

And that’s only the first line. Not a promising start. Line 2:

 

            Oh, did I almost see?

 

Again, say it several times without listening to yourself, then slow it down and listen to your pitches.

 

Listening to my higher and lower spoken pitches, it come out as:

 

            OH did i ALmost SEE?

 

But look at the musical setting:

Once again, “did” is having a great time prancing around on the downbeat. The rest is alright, but the mis-setting of “did” mis-shapes the language into the strange:

 

            OH, DID i ALmost SEE?

 

Now things get really strange. Remember Uncle Ed and Aunt Edna? In these two lines,

 

            Oh, did I almost see

            What’s really on the inside

 

We have two possibilities:

 

            1. Oh, did I almost see?

                What’s really on the inside?

 

            2. Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?

 

Say them both several times, especially noticing the pitch of “what’s” in both versions.

 

Right. In “What’s really on the inside?” “what’s” is stressed, as it should be in its identity as an interrogative pronoun, introducing a question.

 

But in “Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?” “what’s” is a relative pronoun and is, like all relative pronouns, unstressed. Now look at the musical phrasing:

First, “What’s” is stressed in its position in the 3rd beat of the bar, coming down on the side of a question introduced by the interrogative pronoun.

 

Second, the rest between the phrases,

 

            Oh, did I almost see?

            What’s really on the inside?

 

separates the ideas. Two musical phrases should equal 2 lyric ideas. Unfortunately,

 

            Oh, did I almost see?

            What’s really on the inside?

 

makes no sense. In the lyric’s context,

 

            Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?

 

makes emotional sense. The differing roadmaps –musical phrases and lyric phrases – split the grammatical unit unnaturally and meaning evaporates.

 

The song has stumbled and broken its leg out of the starting gate. But now, the real fun begins:

 

            All your insecurities  

When you say it, the primary stressed are in “All” and “inseCUrities,” a 5-syllable word with its primary stress in the middle, and secondary stresses on “in” and “ties.” Listen to your pitches as you pronounce it. The 2nd and 4th syllables ate the lowest in pitch, the 1st and 5th are medium, and the middle, cur, is the highest pitch.

 

            ALL your inseCUrities

 

That way it sounds natural. But look at the setting:     

Not only is the pronoun “your” in a stressed position, but the secondary stresses of inseCUrities are placed on downbeats, while the primary stress is relegated to the weaker 3rd beat, turning it upside down:

 

            ALL YOUR INsecuriTIES

 

But wait! There’s more. J This one kills me:

 

            All the dirty laundry

 

There’s no issue scanning this. Right?

 

            ALL the DIRty LAUNdry

 

Shouldn’t be an issue setting it either. Right?

 

Wrong.

It’s hard to believe. “All” is on a 3rd beat. Fine so far, but “the” on a downbeat? And the weak syllable of “dirty” on beat 3? The coup de gras: the weak syllable of “laundry” on a downbeat! Sheer insanity:

 

            All THE dirTY launDRY

 

Now say:

 

            Never made me blink one time

 

Right:

 

            NEver MADE me BLINK ONE TIME

 

But take a look at this:

The stressed syllable of “Never” is on beat 3, and the unstressed syllable is in the powerful downbeat position. The unstressed pronoun “me” is on beat 3 and the strong verk “blink” is relegated to the corner in beat 4. Additionally, “time,” which is stronger than “one” is in a weaker position.

 

Enter Ed and Edna:

 

            All the dirty laundry

            Never made me blink one time

 

The lyric is one idea:

 

            All the dirty laundry never made me blink one time

 

But the natural flow of the line is chopped into two melodic phrases, compounding the setting fracture and amputating meaning altogether.

 

All this before we even get to the most laughable part of the song. The idea is, by this time, DOA (dead on arrival). Still, let’s have a last kick at the totally inert carcass of this song:

 

            Unconditional, unconditionally

            I will love you unconditionally…

 

Scan it:

 

            unconDItional, unconDItionally

            I will LOVE you unconDItionally …

 

These are words that almost everyone on the planet longs to hear. Alas, no one can hear them here:         

Of course, there’s the egregious setting of uncondiTIONalLY, with the primary musical stress in exactly the wrong place, but equally ugly is the emphasis on the pronouns at the expense of “love,” on the 4th beat of the bar, making it sound like “I will a view.” Not to mention the final syllable, LY, on a downbeat.

 

Finally, another terrible setting of unCONdiTIONalLY, after the non-declaration of love.

 

            UncondiTIONal, uncondiTIONalLY

            I will love YOU unCONdiTIONalLY…

 

Again, if you read the whole section naturally, in, if you will, ordinary language, the sentiment is lovely. Something everyone aches to hear. Combined with this setting, it’s reduced to a cartoon. One is left listening only with Dr. Luke and Max Martin’s production, since all the meaning of the lyric has been vacated. Maybe that was their plan.

Poetic Rhythms and Variations

The problems we’ve just seen in “Unconditionally” arise because 2 different elements, both rhythmic, join together to create a union. Unless the natural shape of the language is preserved by the musical rhythm, the result will falter and mean less than if the words were simply spoken.

 

The same is true in poetry, at least in poetry that attempts to establish a rhythmic base: the entire panoply of poems written in iambics, essentially 2/3rds of the poetry written in English. They work like songs, in that the meter (or iambic pulse) that creates motion is joined to words. Unlike songs, the meter only creates expectations that the iambic pattern will continue, whereas in songs the music and lyric are articulated simultaneously.

 

The poet sets the meter up by creating patterns of unstressed and stressed syllables, then departs from the da DUM da DUM pattern to make an expressive point.

 

Once again, the natural stresses of the language need to be served in order to make the poet’s syncopations against the pulse effective.

 

Let’s start with two lines from Keats, who’s talking to a vase:

 

            Thou still unravished bride of quietness

            Thou foster child of silence and slow time

                                                —Ode on a Grecian Urn—

 

Here, Keats establishes a rhythmic figure by repeating it enough times to create expectations. In this case, the figure is an iamb: da DUM (unstressed, stressed). The poem starts out

 

            Thou still unravished bride of quiet…

 

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da…

 

The figure da DUM is firmly established by repetition, creating expectations that the final syllable of the line will follow the pattern and be a DUM. But the “ness” of “quietness” is unstressed, giving us

 

            Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetness

 

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da da

 

This is syncopation. It cuts against the established pattern (da DUM) and substitutes the variation (da da), violating our expectations. This calls our attention to a variation that creates a diminuendo, supporting the idea of quietude. Nice.

 

The second line is even stronger:

 

            Thou foster child of silence…

 

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da…

 

The pattern is once again established, leading us to expect it to continue

 

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

 

Instead, we find

 

            Thou FOSter CHILD of SIlence and SLOW TIME

 

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM DUM

 

Once again, the diminuendo at “da da” supports the concept of  “silence” – is an example of it. But even more remarkable, the double stress at “slow time” slows the line down, supporting the concept of SLOW TIME!

 

Wonderful prosody is created by these syncopations. They enhance and support the meaning while, at the same time, creating a spotlight by surprising us—not doing the expected. That’s the gig for these poets. They do it very well.

 

Note that the syncopation is achieved by creating variations in the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed and unstressed syllables are the fundamental building blocks both for establishing the pattern and creating variations.

 

The variation is NOT achieved by keeping the same rhythmic pattern and mis-stressing syllables.

 

            Thou still unravished bride of quietness

 

is

 

            Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetness

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da da

 

NOT

 

            Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetNESS

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

 

Likewise,

 

            Thou foster child of silence and slow time

 

is

 

            Thou FOSter CHILD of SIlence and SLOW TIME

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM DUM

 

not

 

            Thou FOSter CHILD of Silence AND slow TIME

            da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

 

If this were the way to create variation—by keeping the same meter and wrenching the words into an unnatural shape, we would lose the wonderful effects so hard won by diligent work and paying close attention. It would be the substitution of laziness and indifference for craft and talent. Worse, the support of the concept using rhythm and variation (like DUM DUM slowing the line down exactly where we’re talking about “slow time”) vanishes in a cartoon of language – a pointless flashing of light on the wrong thing.

 

The technique of pattern and variation is simple and straightforward. You don’t have to distort the natural shape of the language, because all you have to do is arrange the natural stresses (the ordinary language) so that THEY create the variations, while keeping our attention focused on meaning. Distorting the shape pulls our focus away from meaning rather than supporting it and enhancing it.

 

In my view, the same principles apply directly to the matching stressed notes with stressed syllables and unstressed notes with unstressed syllables. Don’t mismatch them, rather, use the musical patterns of weak and strong (matched perfectly with syllables) to create expectations, then use the musical variations (matched perfectly with syllables) to enhance and support the meaning. All the while preserving the natural shape of the language, thereby keeping attention focused on meaning.

 

            Unconditional, unconditionally

            I will love you unconditionally…

 

            unconDItional, unconDItionally

            I will LOVE you unconDItionally

 

Not:

 

            UncondiTIONal, uncondiTIONalLY

            I will love YOU unCONdiTIONalLY

 

 

“How is that word used in Ordinary Language” and  “Preserve the natural shape of the language” have become, for me, 2 sides of the same coin: Just as “Is that tree real?” loses its meaning when real is wrenched out of its natural habitat in Ordinary Language, we lose meaning and emotion when we allow either musical rhythms or poetic rhythms to overpower the natural shape of words and phrases.

 

Mantra: Preserve the natural shape of the language.

 

I have no doubt that Wittgenstein, not only a philosopher, but a consummate musician, would agree.

© 2020 Pat Pattison