WordWaves is a visual musical language for singers, teachers, songwriters, and anyone who works with sung music.
Here in the WordWaves blog, we're going to dive deep into the "hidden" parts of singing, the stuff that singers use to combine text, rhythm, and musicality seamlessly in song.
I want to kick things off with the question that led to my creating WordWaves in the first place: why are we so incapable of talking about how words and rhythm work together in song?
Imagine you’re teaching a song to a singer who doesn’t know how to read sheet music. You don’t want to just sing it and have them imitate you; you want to give them the information they need to perform it themselves. What do you do?
Most people would go for some combination of playing the melody on the piano and counting the rhythm. That’ll tell your singer what the pitches are and when they happen. But it won’t tell them anything about how the words connect to those sounds.
Say the song you’re working on is Katy Perry’s “Firework”:
Look at the word “firework” in this excerpt. How would you describe what’s going on in that bar? You might say:
“ONE, two, three, FOUR-AND!”
“The last rhythm is syncopated.”
“The ‘work’ is pushed.”
“The end of the word comes before the next downbeat.”
Those are all true statements, but none of them consider what’s going on from the perspective of the lyric. What does the word “firework” feel like? Most of the statements I listed help you find the beat where the syllable “-work” is supposed to be. Can you talk about the rhythm in a way that considers the whole word — or even the whole sentence?
Most people don’t have any language for this because we expect singers to “feel it” instinctively. But how can you help someone who doesn’t immediately “feel” what they’re supposed to feel? We’ve all had that moment learning a song where there’s one stupid that shouldn’t be so hard but that, for some reason, you just can’t get right.
You know the one I mean: that stupid phrase that quickly becomes the only thing you can think about, and your heart starts pumping every time you get close to it, and eventually you get yourself so worked up about it that you can’t even remember what right IS anymore!!
So our hypothetical singer is struggling with the word “firework,” and describing the rhythms hasn’t helped them “feel it.” At this point, most teachers and coaches default to singing the phrase themselves as an example. Or they do that thing where we speak-sing lyrics and use vocal inflections to show where the rhythmic accent is, which always ends up sounding weird and hilarious.
There’s a reason we do that, and it’s not crazy: our vocal inflections in speech are closely tied to our vocal inflections in music. But speech inflections indicate energy and intention, which often relate more to musical rhythm than musical pitch. We don’t have any way to talk about how the impulses that drive spoken text translate into the energy we apply to lyrics in song.
There are a lot of singers who don’t think mathematically but can still sing rhythmically complicated music beautifully. Why don’t we have a method for teaching music that caters to their way of thinking?
Why do we settle for saying, “They just feel it,” instead of trying to understand more specifically how they’re feeling so we can engage with that experience?
Let’s look at another example. This is an excerpt of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”:
Songs like this famously look terrible when transcribed. “The rhythms never reflect how it’s actually performed,” we always say.
Why is that?!
Joni Mitchell’s songs are deeply musical and deeply rhythmic. Why is the main tool we use for communicating about music so hopelessly incapable of capturing how she performs? And if sheet music can’t show us what’s going on in Joni Mitchell’s music, then what is going on? What is Joni doing that a transcriber can’t transcribe?
If the way we write music down can’t represent how someone like Joni Mitchell makes music, then maybe we need a new way to write music down.
What elements of singing do you wish were easier to talk about? What moments have left you feeling frustrated because you knew there was something more to discover, but you couldn’t access it? Comment below and let me know. I want to hear about it.