Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 2)

My last post introduced Pat Pattison’s songwriting theory of stability/instability and I compared it to consonance/dissonance in music composition.  Good writing, I suggested, is when we intentionally design both stable and unstable elements into a song to convey an intended emotion to our listeners.

Pat Pattison’s songwriting method offers an interesting way to apply the concept of stability/instability when we set words to music.  He refers to this as the ‘body language’ of a song and, rightly, points out that most of our communication is non-verbal in nature.  In other words, how we say or sing something is probably more important than the actual words we are saying or singing.

Pattison uses the terms ‘front heavy’ and ‘back heavy’ when he talks about stability/instability with the setting of lyrics to music with this fundamental distinction:

  • Front heavy phrasing is stable
  • Back heavy phrasing is unstable

So what does he mean?  Front heavy phrasing emphasizes key words on strong beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the first and third beats of a measure.  Back heavy phrasing places key words on weak beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the second and fourth beats.  In practice when we sing, the placement might not be exactly on a beat but the idea here is a rough guideline.

Front heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of being assertive, confident, factual.  Back heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of uncertainty, loss, trepidation.  Used in combination, the two techniques can be subtle but powerful when aligning the body language of you song with with the content of the lyric.  Pattison’s demonstration of it in action (see link above) is quite revealing.

I’ve applied it to my own writing and I am becoming convinced that there is definitely something to this approach that improves my songs.  Not only that but it gives me a helpful tool for analyzing my lyric setting especially when something just doesn’t sound right to my ears.  By examining the placement of my lyrics in relation to front/back heavy emphasis, I find I can make more informed decisions when I want to make changes to the song.

In the next post I’ll share a worksheet technique that I’ve developed for analyzing the body language of my songs.

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