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:
When you sing, you’re like a potter. Each English word is a piece of clay. You choose how to shape it. The vowel sounds are the stretchy bits. Even the smallest vowel sound can hold powerful emotion, if you stretch it and turn it a little.
Natalie Merchant is a vowel virtuoso. She sings the tiny word ‘go’ nine times in her song, Motherland. Each time, she shapes the vowel slightly differently. Each time, the word makes you feel something slightly different. It’s always tinged with sadness, but the sadness shifts a breath each time, from despair, through saudade to beseeching love:
Natalie sings Motherland as a tapestry of emotions. Every sound a stitch. When you hear her sing the word ‘happiness’ (at 2:21), can you feel the warm hug in her voice? It’s a choice. Happiness is a word built by human usage over the centuries. We’ve kept it in daily use because it sounds and feels like what it is. It’s built to sound happy, with its bouncy shape and the pop of a double p sound in the middle. Its first syllable is a rise up sound and the ness is usually just an easy, smooth exit sound.
What does Natalie Merchant add? Rather than singing happiness as a single word, she splits it into its 3 syllables. Happ-i-ness. She slows the word down and savours it. She gives the first syllable its usual stress, so we know what word she’s about to sing, but the slight catch in her throat, makes happiness sound precious and fragile. That’s unusual, so we listen more closely. Natalie adds an extra layer of softness by leaning on the ‘ness’ and giving us a millisecond more than usual with its sound. That double ss wraps her beloved like a cosy blanket.
She chooses not to pronounce happiness in the usual, expected way – with the stress clearly on the first syllable. She stresses the last syllable too. She spreads the emotional message right down to the toes of the word. As you watch her sing it, you can see, by her hand movements, how important the word is.
Listen to Fred Astaire paint happiness slightly differently, more matter-of-factly, with a different intention, in Cheek to Cheek:
Let intention shape your mouth when you sing. Do you want the English word happiness to communicate a commitment to cherishing long-term love or to simply name your present state of mind? It’ll do either, and more, but you’re in charge of making its meaning clear to your listeners.
If you want to learn more, choose any word that Natalie Merchant sings, especially if she sings it more than once. Listen to the tiny differences. Listen to: You tell me what that’s like to be – especially the be. Listen to free. Listen to the differences every time she sings me.
Motherland is a treasure trove of sound at the service of meaning and emotion. Natalie wrote the song, so she chose the sounds and shape of the words. Every time she sings it, she chooses those sounds again. She reshapes the sounds to make the song fit her present intention. And leaves other singers to colour the words as they will. Even when she has rehearsed her song with them.
When Natalie Merchant sings Motherland as a duet with John Castillo, she ‘gives’ him the crucial word happiness. Listen to the way he sings it (just after 2 minutes in). He’s much stronger and brighter on the ss, which takes away the maternal, cuddly, wrapping sound Natalie gives it, but pulls the word closer to the certainty of Fred Astaire’s version of happiness:
You can see, by Natalie’s face, that she’s perfectly happy with that. Happiness, like any English word, is there to serve the song and the singer’s living version of the song. I’d say that John Castillo, as a young man, would have struggled to sound believable with a maternal version of happiness in his mouth. His brighter version of the word works perfectly, in a different way.
“After all the years of hearing the song misinterpreted and played backwards and all of that nonsense, I never thought someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘And by the way, that was a lovely piece – and to prove it here’s another way of looking at it.” Robert Plant
When you invite Death into a love song, how do you keep your audience sensing eternity, not endings? You build a regular, reassuring heartbeat of guitar and drums, with a hint of melancholy in the A minor scale. You use words with warm, round ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘y’ and ‘b’ sounds. No guillotine cuts of ‘k’, ‘tt‘ or ‘ss’. No heavy, dead thuds of ‘d’ or ‘ug’. Light words, sung lightly, layered with the lalala of summertime. Death becomes a fact, not a fear; a natural part of life and love:
The video version is edited, with about 10 minutes removed, so, if you like A Day in the Life, find 24:25 minutes into the radio interview. McCartney talks about the shared songwriting with Lennon, about John Cage’s influence on the sound and about George Martin persuading the orchestra to follow unusual musical instructions. Paul says one member of the orchestra walked out in disgust when he was asked to ‘clap on the end of Hey Jude‘.
There’s something for everyone! If you teach music to children, Paul has suggestions for inspiring lessons here.