As children, we teach ourselves to do some fairly annoying things. I remember being about nine or so, and inventing something that bugged the hell out of my mother, yet, today, I consider a valuable technique in composing music.
She’d say something and I’d instantly mimic it back to her, sans words, using the nonsense sounds I associated with instruments. I’d keep her rhythm, and an approximation of the pitch. So, I might use the sound I felt sounded like an oboe, and oboe back to her what she’d just said in English.
Is this making any sense? An illustration, with strings, is Steve Reich’s Different Trains, starting around :36 in the video. Various different old people say various things about train trips they remember. Reich gets an instrument to repeat their rhythm and pitches. I was the pioneer; Reich followed my lead many years later.
When you’re setting a lyric to music, this might be a worthwhile way to start. Before composing anything, act the lyric. If you consider yourself an inept actor, get a good actor to help you out. Record the spoken text. Jot down the rhythm on a staff. On a separate piece of paper, notate the pitches. Now you’ve got something to play with, and this proto-draft, self-evidently, follows natural speech patterns. In good musicals, sung passages co-exist with spoken dialogue. It can be valuable to have lyrics hit the ear as naturally as human speech does.
The trickier part is figuring out how to alter this speech-with-recorded-pitch-and-rhythms into something a little more mellifluous, something that makes formal and harmonic sense. Yes, as I’m always saying: you’re going to change things. But at least you’re starting with a natural-sounding spine.
Lyricists – yes, I said lyricists; I’m not just talking to composers here – need to understand this process. Ideally, they’ll create text that speaks well. That is, can be acted. They must understand form: the forms you find in poetry, the structural forms you find in music. So composers setting the lyric will already have some of the work (of finding the form) done for them.
In some of the recent press about “live singing” in the miserable movie, the name Rex Harrison came up. The tale is told that he insisted on “live singing” the My Fair Lady film since he never performed his songs the same way twice and couldn’t imagine lip-syncing to some way he’d done it previously. In considering this process of speech-to-music, think about Lerner and Loewe writing songs for this brilliant actor who couldn’t sustain notes the way singers do. The lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, fashioned songs with fairly complex forms. These are worthy of careful examination, because Lerner knew it’s amusing to watch Harrison shift emotional gears. Think of the contrast between “I’m an ordinary man” and “But let a woman in your life.” Composer Frederick Loewe didn’t skimp on the pitches. In the accompaniment, you can hear a tune for everything Harrison sings – er, doesn’t sing – I believe the verb is Rex: a tune for everything Harrison Rexes.
It should go without saying that the spoken-by-an-actor baseline is merely a point of departure. Composers know that, just as singing is the result of heightened emotion in a musical’s text, a good melody is a lot more than a musical replication of speech. For me, the fantastic world of harmony, and the emotional associations of every combination of chords, is the subject of endless fascination. Since the onset of puberty, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time playing show tunes and standards – preferring those I haven’t played before – and what I’m usually thinking about is how one chord leads to another. As an exercise, I’d write a simple melody and then harmonize it a dozen different ways, just to look at what the chords do to the affective feeling of a piece. I don’t think these things make me particularly unusual. Composers are naturally interested in harmony. I’ve heard of worse reactions to puberty.
A song popped into my head to illustrate all of this, an 80-year-old ballad called If I Love Again. The refrain’s lyric is filled with simple five-syllable phrases.
If I love again
Though it’s someone new
If I love again
It will still be you.
In someone else’s fond embrace,
I’ll close my eyes and see your face.
If I love again
I’ll find other charms
But I’ll make believe
You are in my arms.
And though my lips whisper “I love you,”
My heart will not be true,
I’ll be loving you
Every time I love again
The composer setting this would immediately note that the first and third stanzas match each other. So, the overall structure is likely to be ABAC. In this case the composer dealt with the longer final stanza by repeating the hook in the manner of a tag. If you have the sheet music (and I hope you do: I’ve misplaced my copy. Could you send it to me?), play just the melody line. It’s pretty simple: many quarter notes and there’s something merry and sing-songy about the second line of the A.
Now, play the whole thing, and see how the chords chart emotional changes. That second title sounds so much sadder than the first. That sing-songy line rings false on “I’ll find other charms” as if the character is trying to maintain she’ll be just fine. So, with the contrasting harmonies, “But I’ll make believe” sounds exquisitely sad. The penultimate chord is – I think (remember, I’ve lost my sheet music), a diminished one, suggesting that the person singing this will love again, but joylessly.
It’s said that artists observe more than mere mortals. I’ll tell you this: You can train yourself to observe more. So, if that truism is true, you’re part of the way there.
I wrote my first musical at the tender age of 14, and its main love song was the result of an exercise I created for myself. I opened up the Rodgers and Hart songbook to a song I didn’t already know, copied down the chord symbols, and wrote a melody to those harmonies. Few people have heard this song – and I can’t even remember the title – but nobody who has could identify the original I’d pilfered from. I don’t think this resulted in a great song, but I do think it’s a great exercise. Steal one element (harmony) from one of the best and learn what it’s like to work with a brilliant chord sequence. That should take you one step closer to coming up with your own.