Songs That Use “Word Painting”: The Art of Creating Music That Sounds Like the Lyrics

“There’s no love song fin­er, but how strange the change from major to minor, every­time we say good­bye.”

In the line above from Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Good­bye,” we’re moved from the hap­pi­ness of love to the sad­ness of part­ing, and so too do the chords change, from major to minor, thus sub­tly chang­ing the mood of the song. The tech­nique is a clever exam­ple of a song­writ­ing method called “word paint­ing,” or prosody, when lyrics are accom­pa­nied by a rhyth­mic, melod­ic, or har­mon­ic shift that com­ple­ments their mean­ing. We hear it in pop music all the time, draw­ing our atten­tion to sig­nif­i­cant moments, and shap­ing the emo­tion­al impact of words and phras­es.

The word “Stop,” for exam­ple, appears over and over in pop music, as the video above from David Ben­nett shows, accom­pa­nied by a full stop from the band. Span­ish-lan­guage hit “Despaci­to” (which means “slow­ly”) slows the tem­po while the tit­u­lar word is sung. There are innu­mer­able exam­ples of melodies ris­ing and falling to lyrics like “high, up, down” and “low.” A more sophis­ti­cat­ed exam­ple of word pain­ing comes from Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah,” which tells us exact­ly what the music’s doing — “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.”

As inge­nious as these moves are, Ben­nett goes on to show us how word paint­ing can be “even more nuanced” in clas­sics like The Doors’ “Rid­ers on the Storm.” As Ray Man­zarek him­self explains in an inter­view clip, his key­board part led to an ono­matopoeia effect: lyrics, melody, and sound effects all com­ing togeth­er to express the entire theme. Ben­nett shows in his sec­ond word paint­ing video, above, how stu­dio effects can also be used to sync music and lyrics, such as the murky eq effect applied to Bil­lie Eilish’s voice on the word “under­wa­ter” in her song “Every­thing I Want­ed.”

Exam­ples of effects like this date back at least to Jimi Hen­drix, who pio­neered the stu­dio as a song­writ­ing tool, but word paint­ing as a song­writ­ing method requires no spe­cial tech­nol­o­gy. The Jack­son Five’s “ABC,” for instance, lands on E♭ and C dur­ing the line “I before E except after C,” and the famous cho­rus is sung to the notes A♭, B♭m7, and C. Here, the notes them­selves tell the sto­ry, sim­ple but undoubt­ed­ly effec­tive. All of the exam­ples Ben­nett adduces may come from pop­u­lar music, but word paint­ing is as old as poet­ry, which was once insep­a­ra­ble from song. For as long as humans have com­mu­ni­cat­ed with lit­er­ary epics, funer­al rites, tragedies, come­dies, and love songs, we have used prosody to shape words with music, and music accord­ing to the mean­ing of our words.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Tom Pet­ty Takes You Inside His Song­writ­ing Craft

Naked­ly Exam­ined Music Pod­cast Explores Song­writ­ing with Crack­er, King Crim­son, Cut­ting Crew, Jill Sob­ule & More

How David Bowie Used William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unfor­get­table Lyrics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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