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Pat's Lyric Tips

Setting Words to Music

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.




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 3rdbeat, turning it upside down:



But wait! There’s more. ☺ 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? 



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






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.

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