An Investigation of Folksongs - IV
The melody of the folksong is the flexible structure we use to fit what we would like to say in a given language. In a later write up, we shall start with a lead and transform it into many melodies with exactly the same number of notes and exactly the same pitches of the original melody. Obviously, we can determine the validity of the hypothesis a song is not what you say it is how you say it by taking the same lead and fitting different nonsense words to sound like a legitimate song. Let us begin by taking a simple sentence analysing the importance of the rhythm in changing the meaning. Our sentence is: "Peg bought a car today". This is a six syllable sentence and it can mean or allude to different declarations by changing the rhythmic structure. If I start to sentence with a strong accent on the first syllable – Peg, I probably mean it was peg who bought a car. If the accent or the long notes are on bought car and day I am either trying to mock or I got the rhythm wrong. If the first three syllables are a week leading to car and followed by a weak to and a strong day, then I am emphasising the purchase of the car and the day it was purchased. By the selection of the ending pitch going up or down we make a line a question or a declaration; but by the selection of the rhythmic structure, that is the words, we define the rhythm and nuances to a line.
If I can string along a collection of words that sound legitimate but in effect nonsense I can write "a song" in any language so long as I am familiar with the sounds of the language. Even if I don't know the language but know it's rhythm that will even be better. The famous Jabberwocky is a nonsense poem sounds important and meaningful the same thing is easier in a song, especially a folksong,; since the music moves the song along without the necessary of paying attention to the meaning. This is intuitively correct, most of us would enjoy a song or two in a language that we are not familiar with.
It is very reasonable to assume that in orally transmitted folksongs the dissolution of the importance of semantics. This is due to some of the factors we have already discussed. A short and "sweet" melody, easy to remember structure and relatively narrow range of pitches used all work to enhance the tune over the meaning. This suggests that it is easy to write a nonsense song but the hard part is the writing of a song that is musically and semantically interesting or memorable. Is there a useful and practical guide for those who are not talented songwriters, but would like to write an occasional song or two. Well, there is and there isn't. To my knowledge, I have not seen a good guide or an instruction book on writing a song. But, there are two books by Stephen Sondheim. In this two books of collected lyrics with commentary and an introduction to the first book that is really the best instructions one can get on writing lyrics or songs. Considering the fact that Sondheim is one of the greatest songwriters/lyricist/composer of the 20th-century these two books are a treasure. Here is the reference,
Finishing the hat – collected lyrics(1954 – 1981) with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010
Look, I made a hat – collected lyrics (1981 – 2011) with attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions anecdotes and miscellany. Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2011.
I think it would be difficult to find a course, a lecture series, or a teacher better than these two books for those who are talented in the lyrics writing and really want to write songs or musicals. I am neither a lyricist nor a songwriter/poet. Therefore, I would be reluctant to give advice to those who would want to learn something about this craft. Having read these two books twice, I feel that they are both entertaining and helpful to the composers as well. Very briefly I will summarise "the Sondheim method".
He has three principles:
content dictates form
less is more
god is in the details
"all in the service of CLARITY without which nothing else matters"
In looking over 1000 or more folksongs that survived the test of time, I can understand why these three principles clearly apply to folksongs, especially when they are orally transmitted. The melody as modified by rhythm is flexible enough to be determined by the content of the song. In the crude example on purchase of the car, this is apparent. Obviously, for a serious content this is even more important. The parsimony of the number of syllables as it can be seen in the first folksong blog attests to the applicable lute of the second principle the folksongs. A folksong or a song, although can be, is not an operatic aria. Arguably a set of complicated ideas are better served by more than one song, rather than long complicated sentences stepping on each other in a single song. That would really be dealt with the third principle providing clear and concise songs that might also be memorable.
These are the ground rules upon which most of the two books are based on. With living, breathing examples of the development of lyrics or songs from an idea to the finished product is a fascinating journey to the lyricist, composer or a person who is generally interested enough to read this blog. If you are professionally interested in writing for the theatre, I would recommend the purchase of these two books. They are really case studies and handbooks on how to write lyrics.