Imagine this: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are on tour in your country. One of the singers falls off stage at the soundcheck and breaks their leg. You’re the last-minute replacement. This could be your big break.
Frankie makes a last minute change to the set list. He adds The Night. You don’t know the song, but you smile at Frankie anyway. “My favourite song,” you say. You feel sick.
If English isn’t your first language, it can be difficult, when you sing, to know where to bend words or break lines without damaging their integrity. You’ll need to squeeze, stretch and chop in all the right places if you want the words to fit the music in The Night. You’ll lose the job if you don’t get it right.
Smile. Borrow Frankie’s diamond-studded pencil. Get to work. Find a private corner. Listen to The Night. Mark your lyrics to show where the strongest stress falls in each line. That’ll be your scaffolding :
We won’t go through every single line of the song here (contact us if you sing The Night and want more detail), but:
- Can you hear the stress on the second syllable in each of the first 4 lines: beware, believe, before and be sure?
- The stress shifts to the third syllable in the next section: paints, tells and covers. These words are important because they’re the verbs you’re using to describe the annoying actions of your enthusiastic rival.
- By the way – when you sing He paints a pretty picture – are you complimenting your love rival’s artistic ability? Or are you using He paints a pretty picture as an idiom? To sneer at his powers of deception. You’ll sing the phrase differently if it’s an idiom.
- You put stress on the 3rd syllable word in the next line: always. It’s the kind of word people use in arguments: “He always remembers my birthday” – and the angry response – “Oh yes, of course. I forgot about Mr Perfect. He always remembers your birthday, doesn’t he?”
- Always is stressed and repeated in the next verse – forming a link between the last line of one verse and the first line of the next. That’s clever.
We’ll leave you to do the detective work to find the stress in the rest of the song. It’s good practice and it’s the kind of thing you should do with every song you want to sing in English.
Now you need to work out why the songwriter put the stress where they did. Then you’ll know what to do with all the other words in the line. Are they filler words that serve the music? Or do they carry meaning too? Work it out by listening again. You don’t need to understand every single word of the song, but you do need to understand why the songwriter chose each word in the first place.
What’s the song about? Think: who are you, the singer, singing to? What do you want from them? Love? Understanding? Support? Drugs? Peace and quiet? Something else?
In The Night you’re singing to your lover because you’re in danger of losing her. You want her to realise that her new love interest – your alluring, flower-buying, love rival – is a trickster. You want to convince her that she’ll regret it if she chooses him instead of you. Your success depends on your persuasive use of English.
You begin your song, and your persuasion, with the strongly stressed words beware, believe, before and be sure. They’re warning words. You want her to take them seriously. Your repetition of be is as strong as a hammer banging in nails.
By the way – when you mark your lyric sheet, be sure to mark beware, believe and before as Be Ware, Be Lieve and Be Fore. Why? Because the gap you can hear in the middle of each word is subtle but crucial. It draws attention to be as an imperative, adds persuasive strength and creates a strong sound link to be sure. The songwriter’s playing with English, because, long ago, the two parts of these words were separate. In Middle English, you would have said “Be Ware” – meaning ‘Be wary’ or Be aware’. Mark your lyrics sheet to show the words separated.
Why? Because otherwise you will have the voice of your English teacher in your head, whispering the ‘correct’ pronunciation of beware, believe and before while you sing. Like every good student, you’ll listen to your English teacher’s voice. You’ll find yourself fighting the music, trying to stick the separated words back together, to keep your English teacher happy. It won’t sound good.
So think of them as new words: Ware, Lieve and Fore. That will silence the English teacher in your head.
It won’t sound good if you sing be with the wrong vowel sound either. So check that you’ve got it right. Never assume that you ‘know’ a word in English, no matter how short or basic. Always check. You’ll be surprised. The correct vowel sound of be doesn’t exist in a lot of other languages.
You’ll need the same be vowel sound for other important words like need, dreaming, easy, sweetly, really, completely and leaving. You must use the same vowel sound because the internal rhyme scheme of the song will collapse without it.
We’ll leave you to go through the song yourself now. Just remember:
- Leave yourself time, and breath, to voice every word in every line. Even the unstressed ones. They’re all important. Some are more important than others.
- Don’t miss out consonants or slur syllables. Your audience won’t like it. They want to hear your story. Clearly.
One last hint: notice where the Four Seasons use schwa sounds in hour, tower, ever, covers and flowers. They use a schwa in a and the and at the beginning of around too. It saves time and sounds naturally English. Use a schwa when you can. If you try to pronounce every single letter of every single word, without using a schwa, you’ll run out of breath. And you’ll sound odd in English.
There’s comfortable room for every single word in The Night, but only if you sing using the English pronunciation that the songwriter had in mind when he wrote it. He chose the words to fit the music. Perfectly.
Think about it. The Four Seasons manage. If they can do it, so can you.
The Four Seasons’ way isn’t the only way. Watch Hannah Robinson’s impressive, relaxed cover of The Night. Notice how she uses the wh of what to focus the emotion of the line Believe what I say. She’s building on the strengths of the Frankie Valli original:
Once you know how to fit all the words in their proper places, you can play with the song, as Hannah does. Decide how you would use the words and the music to persuade your lover to stay with you.
Maybe wait until you’ve finished with the Frankie Valli concert tour before you do anything too wild to The Night. If you want to keep your job.
Get ready to go on stage. Enjoy the concert. Bend, stretch and chop in all the right places.
Don’t forget to give Frankie’s pencil back.
© Sing Better English, 2014