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.

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

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