Thursday, March 11, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: A Peak at Prosody

"Prosody" has many meanings, depending on what context one is examining (linguistics, music, poetry & versification, etc), but in music, its primary meaning is in fusing the music and lyrics.

This can mean several things (like simply making sure the rhythmic meter of the music matches the rhythmic meter of the music, or matching happy lyrics with up-beat, major key music and sad lyrics with slower, minor key music), but our focus today is on tracking music and lyrics together. Put another way, the music matches the lyrical content (or the lyrical content matching the music). This is also sometimes referred to as "word painting".

For example, when a Sly Stone sings "Gonna take you HIGH-ER" and the pitch rolls up on the last word....or when Garth Brooks sings "I've got friends in LOW places" and drops the pitch on the word "low".....or when Bruno Mars sings "Stop - wait a minute" and the entire band stops playing.....or, for a more subtle example of "stop", when Diana Ross songs "Stop - in the name of love" and the melody stops dead after the word.....or when a vocalist sings "Going down - down, down, down, down, down" in the old Don Nix blues standard "Going Down" (covered by Freddie King, Jeff Beck, Beth Hart, Joe Satriani, Gary Clark Jr, and others, each "down" drops further in pitch, taking the ear lower and lower.

These are all examples of very simple prosody, and there are dozens more examples of "stop", "go", "up", "down", "around", "slow", "fast", and similar. Artists who have used these approaches are wide & varied: From Johnny Cash to Justin Timberlake to James Brown to Warren Zevon to Nancy Sinatra and many more. Or try out the various songs that say "knock" and are matched by the snare drum knocking (from Eddie/Cropper's "Knock on Wood" to Jack Johnson's "Never Know") or the various examples of accentuated onomatopoeia in pop lyrics.

Even more interesting uses of this concept we hear with acts like Elvis Presley when he "shakes" his voice when singing "...I'm in love, I'm all shook up..."; and with Queen in "Somebody to Love" when Freddie sings "...I've got no rhythm, I just keep losing my beat..." with a slight drag to imply singing off tempo; and Ella Fitzgerald sings the line "....the way you sing off key..." and ends with the last word, "key", sung on the wrong note (the song is "You Can't Take That Away From Me"), which is a trick found in other lyrics by Gershwin, Rogers & Hart, and others of the era.

Rap and rock and industrial musics have utilized this concepts on key words with sound effects, for yet another example, and, since I mentioned Queen, take a listen to "Another One Bites the Dust" when the lyric "...machine gun..." is matched by the drums rapid fire snare, or with "Killer Queen" when the lyric "...laser bean..." is flanged, and more.

What we're going to look at is a more advanced use of this concept in Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah".

Many writers are aware of HALF the Cohen equation, but there is a "secret half" we'll reveal as well.

So first we have to back up and explain a very simple theoretical concept so the lyrical trick makes sense. To wit: In any key, we can call the chords by their name OR we can call out the number associated with where the chord sits in a particular key. For example, the key of C has no sharps or flats, so the notes available are simply C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

If we build a chord out of each of those (avoiding all sharps & flats), our most basic chords are:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim.

Each of those can be numbered: C=1, Dm-2, Em=3, F=4, G=5, Am=6, Bdim=7.

There are many reasons we might do that, but we'll save that for later.

That brings us to Leonard Cohen's opening verse of "Hallelujah".

"They say that there's a secret chord
That David played it and it pleased the lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this: the 4th the 5th
The minor falls and the major lifts
The baffled kind composing 'Hallelujah'...."

There are a couple of levels of prosody here. The key of the song is C. Now note, when he says "4th" he plays the F chord, and when he says "5th" he plays the G chord. Further, when he says "minor falls" he plays an Am, and when he says "major lifts" he plays the F again.

Pretty cool, eh?

Also note that when he says "major lifts" the pitch is, and has been for 2 lines, moving up.

But that's not all.

When he sings the last line, he plays G to E7 and then finally Am.

Notice anything wrong there? G to E7 to Am....but our available chords are G and Em and Am. Where did that E7 come from? My, my - that's somewhat...baffling.

When he was "...composing 'Hallelujah'...", he put in a baffling chord: the E7.

That's the "secret half" to which I referred...or perhaps its the "secret chord" to which Cohen referred.

Let all that sink in.....

Now, Leonard doesn't do this through the entire song, mind you. That would get a tad tedious. But the depth of his use of prosody is clear, and there are very few examples of fusing the music and lyrics to this degree.

Experiment with the basic versions of this, but then try linking your music & lyrics in a deeper manner....and be sure to share any other examples (including your own) in the comments below!

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