Word Painting


Word painting (also known as ‘tone painting’) is the musical technique of composing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics.

For example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death.

Tone painting of words goes at least as far back as sixth century Gregorian chant. Little musical patterns are musical words that express not only emotive ideas such as joy but theological meanings as well in the Gregorian. For instance, the pattern ‘FA-MI-SOL-LA’ signifies the humiliation and death of Christ and his resurrection into glory. ‘FA-MI’ signifies deprecation, while ‘SOL’ is the note of the resurrection, and ‘LA’ is above the resurrection. Such musical words are placed on words from the Biblical Latin text; for instance when ‘FA-MI-SOL-LA’ is placed on ‘et libera’ (e.g., introit for Sexagesima Sunday) in the Christian faith it signifies that Christ liberates us from sin through his death and resurrection.

Word painting developed especially in the late 16th century among Italian and English composers of madrigals, to such an extent that word painting devices came to be called madrigalisms. While it originated in secular music, it made its way into other vocal music of the period. While this mannerism is a prominent feature of madrigals of the late 16th century, including both Italian and English, it encountered sharp criticism from some composers. Sixteenth Century English composer Thomas Campion, writing in the preface to his first book of lute songs, said of it: ‘… where the nature of everie word is precisely expresst in the Note … such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous.’

Word painting flourished well into the Baroque music period. One famous, well-known example occurs in Handel’s ‘Messiah’, where a tenor aria contains Handel’s setting of the text of ‘Isaiah’ 40:4: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.’ In Handel’s melody, the word ‘valley’ ends on a low note, ‘exalted’ is a rising figure; ‘mountain’ forms a peak in the melody, and ‘hill’ a smaller one, while ‘low’ is another low note. ‘Crooked’ is sung to a rapid figure of four different notes, while ‘straight’ is sung on a single note, and in ‘the rough places plain,’ ‘the rough places’ is sung over short, separate notes whereas the final word ‘plain’ is extended over several measures in a series of long notes.

A modern example of word painting from the late 20th century occurs in the song ‘Friends in Low Places’ by Garth Brooks. During the chorus, Brooks sings the word ‘low’ on a low note. Similarly, on The Who’s album ‘Tommy,’ the song ‘Smash the Mirror’ contains the line: ‘Can you hear me? Or do I surmise; That you feel me? Can you feel my temper; Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise….’ Each repetition of ‘rise’ is a half-step higher than the last, making this an especially overt example of word-painting.

‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen carries a significant example of the text painting, ‘It goes like this the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift, the baffled king composing hallelujah,’ signifying the movement of the keys and the chord progression, a kind of ambiguous oscillation between moods.

Justin Timberlake’s song ‘What Goes Around’ is another popular example. The lyrics: ‘What goes around, goes around, goes around; Comes all the way back around,’ descend an octave and then return to the upper octave, as though it was going in around in a circle.

In Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire,’ there is an inverse word painting where ‘down, down, down’ is sung to the notes rising, and ‘higher’ is sung dropping from a higher to a lower note. Another inverse happens during the song ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ from ‘Mary Poppins,’ as, during the line ‘Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,’ the words ‘go down’ leap from a lower to a higher note.

Queen use word painting in many of their songs (in particular those written by lead singer Freddie Mercury). In ‘Somebody to Love,’ each time the word ‘Lord’ occurs it is sung as the highest note at the end of an ascending passage. In the same piece, the lyrics ‘I’ve got no rhythm; I just keep losing my beat’ fall on off beats to create the impression that he is out of time.

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