Stairway to Heaven is a classic choice for song contests. If English is your native language, don’t take the words of this song for granted. If English isn’t your native language, don’t take the words of this song for granted. The words matter.
They matter, but they’re not a liturgy. Dave Grohl captures the heart of the song without reciting every word in order. Or at all:
Now that Stairway to Heaven is so famous, it’s hard to imagine a time when audiences didn’t know the words off-by-heart. But, of course, to the first audiences, every single word and every single note was utterly unexpected. Quite different from the Led Zeppelin they thought they knew.
You can read about its first live performance in Ulster Hall, 1971 here and hear it (not great sound quality) here. Apparently, the audience “didn’t like it” and thought it “too ballady for Led Zeppelin.” It took another two years of touring and another two years of clearly repeating the lyrics for Led Zeppelin’s audience to feel comfortable in the ‘story’ and confident enough to sing along with it. To share it.
Stairway to Heaven, as sung by Robert Plant, is a masterclass in English enunciation. He pronounces each word with precision, even when he’s singing at full throttle. Why bother? Surely the music and Jimmy Page’s guitar solo carry the song, without Mr Plant needing to clarify his words? Not so.
Remember, Stairway to Heaven is 8 minutes long. Back in 1971, at its first performances, nobody in the audience could have predicted the meandering, complex fairy story of the ‘lady we all know’ from a band famous for heavy-duty, macho rock songs like Whole Lotta Love. Robert Plant had to light the way into this new, unknown territory and bring his audience along with him.
Here’s the band working out the song at rehearsal:
If you’re not a native speaker of English, you might not realise quite how unusual and unpredictable the vocabulary of Stairway to Heaven is for native English speakers. You don’t hear words like ‘misgiven,’ ‘hedgerow‘ or ‘brook‘ on the streets of London or New York every day.
Phrases like “a spring clean for the May Queen” or “our shadows taller than our souls” are impossible to predict. Robert knows he has to lead his audience unambiguously from word to word, otherwise they will get lost and unhappy in the misty language.
Nowadays, when everyone knows the song, your responsibility is different. Respect. You’re not risking confusion if you don’t sing the words to Stairway to Heaven clearly. You’re risking disgust.
Even Dave Grohl, singing Stairway to Heaven to an audience that knows it off by heart, pronounces the words clearly – or, riffing off the audience’s knowledge, changes hedgerow to headroom. That joke wouldn’t have worked at Ulster Hall, back in 1971.
Yes, Dave’s having fun with Robert Plant’s British accent and having fun with the super-serious, reverential tones of some cover versions, but he never turns the words to porridge. If you’re a non-native speaker of English, learn from Dave Grohl, as much as from Robert Plant: each word has a beginning and an end. Consonants matter.
Robert’s consonants are crisp and clear, especially when they mark the end of a word. Listen to Robert pronouncing the t, k or d at the end of unguessable words like wind, brook or spirit. He’s marking the boundaries for his audience.
Consonants, spoken clearly, ending a word clearly, are essential markers of meaning. Remember, the audience needs your help to divide the stream of sound issuing from your mouth into separate words, especially if you’re singing a song that they don’t know or haven’t heard in a long time. Otherwise you’ll lose them. Even if you’re so beautiful or so bizarrely dressed that the audience has come to stare at your intriguingly embroidered trousers, not to listen. That’s theatre, not song. Robert wanted both.
Without clarity, your audience is left drowning in a confusing porridge of formless sound. A foreign language. It doesn’t take long to lose your way when unusual words, or, indeed, any English words, aren’t given a clear beginning and end. If things get too bad, your audience will leave to find a drink at the bar, for comfort.
It’s uncomfortable when, as a member of the audience, you know that a story is being told on stage, but you feel that the singer isn’t inviting you in to share it with them. Robert Plant knew that.
Stairway to Heaven has no regular rhyme scheme, but often relies on assonance to give listeners a clue of what to expect: get/west, seen/trees, show/gold, dawn/long etc. If English isn’t your native language: be sure that your vowel sounds are English vowel sounds when you sing, otherwise the carefully designed, quirky rhyme system of Stairway to Heaven will escape you.
Don’t expect the spelling of the words to help you work out the rhymes. It won’t. Trust your ears. In Stairway to Heaven, the vowel sound of ‘wall‘ is bent to rhyme with the vowel sound of ‘sure.’ The vowel sound of ‘road‘ rhymes with the vowel sound of ‘soul.’ Listen carefully.**
* * Robert bends vowel sounds when he needs to. The vowel sounds of ‘dawn’ and ‘long’ don’t usually rhyme, but he pushes them closer and closer until they rhyme just enough to suit his purposes (04.07). Listen and be prepared to do the same, for the sake of this song, or any song you sing in English.
Find a proper, accurate version of the lyrics to study if you’re going to sing Stairway to Heaven – not an online site with a guess of the lyrics. Use the written lyrics as a map, but don’t ‘read’ the lyrics in your head as you sing. You won’t be able to stitch them clearly into the music if you do – there are so many words that it’s easy to lose your way.
Finally, remember it’s important to keep the words clear even when, no, especially when, the vocals speed up or get louder. In any song. Listen to Robert again, where Stairway to Heaven really speeds up here. It’s slightly harder to hear his words over Jimmy’s louder guitar playing, but Robert is still taking the trouble to enunciate clearly.
If he can do it, so can you. Clarity is crucial to Stairway to Heaven. The song weaves a story. It follows a path. You need to keep the path of the song clear and free of vocal brambles.
Keep Robert Plant happy by respecting and cherishing the enigmatic words that he chose to suit the music of Stairway to Heaven. Pass the words carefully to your audience, in good condition, so that they can enjoy them too.
But don’t intone the words as if they’re a magic spell or a church service. Bring them to life. Remember Dave Grohl.
When you sing in English, every single sound needs to join the dance of the music, to sway and stretch to the beat. Don’t ever, ever try to force ‘standard pronunciation’ of English into a song when you sing. Leave the English that you learned in the classroom behind when you step onto a stage to sing. Sing clearly when you have a story to tell, but remember, your words must serve the music. Always.
Robert Plant sings clearly, very clearly, but he never sounds like a speaking clock. His clarity enhances the song by weaving evocative language into the music. His words are like bright stitches
“Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”
By the way: if you’re interested in the inspiration for Stairway to Heaven, Robert Plant named Lewis Spence’s book The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as a close influence. This article from the Guardian is worth a read for further information on the song, now and then. And this Vanity Fair article gives a backdrop to the song and the singing of it.
Looking over Led Zeppelin in 2020 lockdown times: Robert Plant’s jeans are a masterclass in creative visible mending. Sashiko at work in all the right places:
And, finally: if you’ve written your own song with unexpected lyrics, learn this from Robert Plant: it’s important to help your audience stay with you. To feel safe. To lead them by the hand. Communicate.
Just because you’ve rehearsed your new song over and over, never forget it’s completely new to your audience. Let communication be your goal, when you choose to share it with them.
© Sing Better English, 2020