If you’re thinking of writing a song in English, choose words for their shape as well as their meaning. Meaning can float in the air (“I am the Walrus?”) but the shape of English words in song must align with the feeling of your music.
Think of Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness. From the title to the chorus it’s a masterful mix of sound shapes. Summertime: soft, warm and measureless. Sadness: deep and hazy. Together, each intensifies the other. I’ve chosen Miley Cyrus’ cover version, from BBC Live Lounge. You can see how Miley shapes her mouth and where she breathes, to allow each word its languorous character:
Summertime Sadness is a perfect example of conscious choosing in songwriting. Listen to all the floating, open-ended sounds at the end of lines: go/know, alive/style/sky, drive/air/snare/everywhere, forever/never. Those sounds let Lana stretch the end of each line into a mesmerising wisp of sound as she sings it. The sound of each word intensifies the emotion it carries.
But this isn’t “Let it Go” from Frozen, with its light, flyaway sounds of freedom. Freedom isn’t Summertime Sadness’ message. Luxurious entanglement is the message. So Lana doesn’t always choose vowel endings for lines. The song would float away if every line ended in air. She uses consonants, but carefully. Tonight/moonlight still sounds light and open, even though it ends in a consonant, t. Why? Because the light, floaty igh sound allows each word to expand and to lift off. Like a balloon. That igh untethers the t, just enough to allow tonight and moonlight to leave the ground and float.
You can pronounce the t at the end of tonight crisply and clearly if you choose. The word, like all English words, is flexible. Think of Tonight from West Side Story, where tonight is sung differently, depending on whether the singer’s imagining a long night of romance, a new certainty or a date for violence. It’s all available when you sing the word tonight:
Lana’s cleverest word-choice comes in the chorus: summertime sadness. Lana has used floating line endings to breathe warm, endless summertime into the song. Everything is possible in a long, hot summer. She tethers the song back to the ground with the solid d of sadness. Summertime floats, sadness sinks.
Lana could have used sorrow, despair, heartache or many other words to convey sadness. None would have worked as well as sadness – for its central d and it’s alliterative s. Sorrow and despair sound too floaty, heartache breaks too harshly in the middle and, from the beginning heartache warns the audience, too soon, of the sadness approaching. Once the word heart… begins, the audience will have guessed heartache or heartbreak as the only possibilities to fill the line. The Heartache gives the game away too soon.
Sadness tempts you in, partly because it begins with the same soft s+vowel sound as summertime. There’s no warning in sound, nothing harsh. You’re still feeling relaxed when the central d of sadness brings things down to the ground.
Sadness is a state of mind. Lana deepens the sadness by hitching it to an atmosphere of endless summertime. It’s an unexpected coupling, but utterly believable. Putting sadness and summertime together in the title makes the song intriguing. You want to know how the two will link up.
Of course, you need more than an English dictionary to bring a song to life. But always check that you’re using the best possible word, especially at the end of a line, or in a chorus.
Use a thesaurus or RhymeZone for inspiration. There’s always another word. If you’re writing a sad song, think of Nick Cave and The Weeping Song. Why does weeping work so much better than sobbing, crying, bawling or blubbing? (I’ve written about it here):
If English isn’t your first language: check here that you’re singing the word Summertime right – with its English schwa sounds and its smooth English r’s. In fact, check all your r sounds. In this song, r is a lazy movement of the jaw, not an energetic rolling of the tongue. You can get advice from David Bowie here.
© Sing Better English, 2016