Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 3)

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.

IMG_0348 IMG_0346 

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.

Advertisements

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.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 1)

Pat Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and a widely respected songwriting coach and mentor.  I’ve written about his approach to songwriting before and find it a helpful way to approach the process most especially during the revising and polishing stage of writing.

If I were to identify two key ideas that inform his approach to writing better songs they would be these:

  1. prosody
  2. stability/instability

I’ll talk more about Pattison’s notion of prosody in a future post but for now I want to focus on his second idea of stability/instability.  The idea is closely related to the notion or consonance/dissonance in music (or tension/release in other forms of writing).  Depending on the intended emotional effect of a piece of music, as writers we want to be aware at all times whether the idea or expression has the quality of assertiveness (stable) or uncertainty (unstable). 

More importantly, we want to be able to use techniques that help our writing to convey these qualities in effective combinations.  In other words, we want to design both stable and unstable elements into our songwriting.

The simple I-IV-V formula for blues progressions is an example of these two elements in a time-honored combination.  It begins with the tonic (I) chord, moves to the subdominant (IV) chord creating a sense of movement (slightly unstable), then back to the dominant (stable), then to the subdominant briefly before heading to the dominant (V) chord (unstable).  With the dominant (V) chord, instability/tension is at its maximum and it resolves satisfyingly back to the stable tonic (I) chord.  It’s like a journey that takes us away and brings us back home.

Many songwriters already understand this aspect of music composition but some like me hadn’t thought about applying it when we set words to music.  And that’s where Pat Pattison’s notion of ‘body language’ in lyrical phrasing comes into play.

More about that in the next posting.

Good Man Down (Take 2)

I’ve taken a break from SAC Challenge 2015 this week because of other commitments but today I took a shot at revising how the lyrics are set to “Good Man Down.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve also been taking Pat Pattison’s course on songwriting.  Among other things, he talks about “body language” and setting lyrics front-heavy or back-heavy.  Front-heavy is on the first beat of the bar, back-heavy is set back in the bar.  Pattison says that front-heavy lends itself to “stability” and back-heavy to “unstable”.

Following the general principle of prosody in songwriting, his approach is to think about and apply front/back heavy to lyric setting as a way to reinforce key ideas and themes in a unified way.  There’s more to it than I can describe here but it is a helpful set of guidelines.

This morning I re-recorded Good Man Down with a vocal performance that sets the lyrics quite a bit different from the original recording.  The verses are now more front-heavy, with selective back-heavy lines in various spots to give emphasis where it is needed.  It’s subtle but it makes a difference (at least I think so).

Here’s GMD, take 2:

The original recording of the song is available here.

SAC Challenge: Object Writing

I’ve started object writing in the mornings as part of my routine during the Challenge.   This is Pat Pattison’s standby technique for developing writing that emphasizes sensuality (i.e., connecting to the senses).  Pattison is a well-known songwriting instructor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Among his most biggest champions is former student John Mayer.  By any measure, that’s a pretty good endorsement!

At five minutes a day, it’s amazing how the object writing exercise helps focus and hone my imagination.

Here’s a primer on object writing.  It’s also a good (and fast) way to generate more in-depth ideas for a song concept in early development, and move away from the most obvious stuff that comes to mind.