Another navel-gazing music post

Because you miss these when I’m not writing them, right? You stand around mewling plaintively, “What obscure musical nonsense is Rachel obsessing over now? I must know!”

One of the songs we’re singing in choir right now is a round, written by our director, Earle Peach. It’s super fun to sing, as rounds often are, but it’s a bit tricky as an alto because the melody goes up a bit out of range for most of us. I can do it, because I am technically a mezzo-soprano, but for those of us who can’t, Earle has given us the option of singing down an octave for a couple bars.

I was trying to do that, so there could be unity in the alto section, but I found it very difficult, in no small part because the lyrics at that point are “you’ll rise up in the air, O children.” The melodic line just feels like it needs to go up at that point as a reflection of the lyrics.

And that’s an interesting train of thought, to me: how do lyrics and melody play off each other? I’m sure they don’t always, but is it better when they do? Is that something to aspire to, in a song? I could see the opposite sometimes being desired, where a melody is so divergent from the lyrics that it lends the words an entirely different layer of meaning. I’m sure this is something songwriters are keenly aware of and play with all the time, that it’s a tool to be used deliberately, but that process isn’t necessarily apparent in the finished song.

Which brings me to a couple interesting anecdotes about words and music, and how they strike people differently. My sister once had to memorize a poem, John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever“. Thing is, she’d forgotten until the morning of the day it was due. She had to memorize this thing quick, and was in despair over it. I believe it was our mother who came up with the idea of setting it to music. The poem fits (somewhat imperfectly) the Chrismas carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” They put the thing to music, and all of a sudden it was ten times easier. My sister memorized it at the bus stop, and was able to write it out for her test.

Now let’s turn the tables. Another true story: that same sister wrote a round (oh look, we’re back at rounds! Everything comes round again in the end). She was trying to teach it to me so we could sing it together, and I just wasn’t getting it. It was minor or modal or counterintuitive somehow. She was about to give up, frustrated with my denseness, when it occurred to me to ask what the words were. She’d been trying to drill the tune into my thick skull without the words, because that was the way that made the most sense to her (or possibly because the words weren’t as transcendent as the melody, and she didn’t like them as much).

The words: “Busy bees buzzing in the fields / Never stopping until sundown.” Hey, don’t laugh. Once I had the words, I had the melody in short order, and it really is such a beautiful little song that we didn’t want to stop singing until sundown either. The words are, in that way, absolutely apropos.

What’s the moral of the story? Two sisters, two learning styles? Melody as memory palace? Nothing, we’re both weirdos? I don’t even know. I just think it’s interesting, and anything that raises more questions than it answers is always good fun to me.


2 Comments on “Another navel-gazing music post”

  1. Laura (the sister) says:

    Busy bees! I love that song too! I actually still sing it to myself sometimes, just randomly, and it goes through my head for days later.

    Of course, there’s your non-round round, “Music, music, music muse! Pass the peas and wear your shoes!” That one goes through my head too.

    You may recall our mother’s dislike of singing, relating to her dislike of words. “Why ruin a perfectly good song by adding words to it?” she’d say. It is my opinion, however, that mediocre words can be helped by adding music to them, and that mediocre music can be helped by adding words to it.


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