This is the third in a series of postings about the body language of a song. I first heard that term from songwriting consultant Pat Pattison, who uses it in reference to lyric setting. In my previous post I described Pattison’s concepts of front and back heavy lines in relation to creating stability or instability in a song.
A key lesson in all this is to ensure that the lyrics are set against the music in a way that delivers maximum intended impact. As Pattison correctly observes, what we say is often less important than how we way it. Setting a lyric to music is about how we deliver the words.
I’ve started to use a worksheet method to help me analyze my own writing and, hopefully, to improve the setting of my lyrics by paying attention to front and back heavy emphasis.
The worksheets use a single stave drum clef divided into 2 measure per row, each with slashes representing each downbeat in the bar. When working with my DAW, I also note the measure number of the lines to help me locate it on the recording. After I’ve recorded a performance of the song I go back and analyze it, transcribing the lyrics using the worksheet.
In the example above, the version on the left is the lyric as originally set in the demo recording. I wasn’t happy with it and felt that it wasn’t well set with the music. When I transcribed it using the worksheet I realized that the phrasing was predominantly back heavy (in the margin I wrote ‘f’ and ‘b’ to mark front and back heavy).
The song lyric is about letting something good slip through your hands and the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. The verse begins with words that paint a picture of thrill and excitement so it lends itself to front heavy emphasis because the first part of the verse is really a series of assertive, stable statements.
However, the mood becomes unstable in the last two lines as the opportunity slips away. So, for the last two lines I opted for back-heavy to contrast with the front-heavy lines and to help better convey that sense of instability that is inherent in the words.
The worksheet on the right shows the lyrics after I made some changes to the way the lines are set. You will notice that all the lines are now set front-heavy except the last four measures of the verse, which adds contrast and instability leading into the chorus.
Incidentally, these changes also required me to rewrite some of the lyrics (the revisions never end!) but that actually helped me to improve some weak spots that had been nagging at me. (However, you will note also the pink Post-it Note identifying what I think is still a weak line that needs more work).
The worksheet is one technique but the main point is to think about the body language of the song and to use front and back heavy setting as a method to better align the ‘what’ you sing with the ‘how’ you sing it.