Singer-songwiter Karine Polwart writes: I’m a songwriter and singer. Songs are my chosen art form. As readers, you’re likely to be interested in the power and meaning of human movement through space. This blog is about songs, not only my work and my craft, but one of the huge loves of my life since childhood. I write then from a place of love and a wish to share my joy and understanding of how and why songs do their amazing- and moving – emotional work for so many of us.
Songs are not primarily scores, static entities on a page or screen. They’ve existed on human voices, and sometimes on instruments too, in every human culture long before they were ever written down. They are in essence for singing and for listening. They are conversation and celebration, affirmation and meditation, and often a very personal vehicle for travelling through, and biding with, our own lives. They live and breathe only in sonic space, on real embodied voices, in a musical topography of rising and falling movement through time. They move in order to move us in our hearts.
This piece requests that you find a space of quiet in which you can listen to just five songs, and consider what I have to say about them, and then listen, carefully, again, and maybe even again (I wager many of you will know two or three of these songs already on some level). This reflection is not about dance or bodies moving in physical space; it is, however, very much about movement, dynamics and the relationship between sensory experience and emotional states. In song, falling and rising, waiting and holding, falling and rising again are essential. This is the fundamental architecture of melody and harmony. Without it, in music, there is only droning and chanting. And beautiful and evocative as these are, they cannot encompass the reality and extremity of human emotion, the dramatic arc of our own stories, of our own lives. This is the work of song.
Melodies and harmonies rise and fall in crafted mindful ways, mapping emotional journeys and narratives that are themselves often also metaphors of rising and falling. In life and in song, we fall into one another’s arms, we fall in love. Falling here is not like tripping on a pavement slab. Falling is beautiful, a delicious letting go. We fall out of love in song also, falling for losers and cheats who leave us heartbroken and crestfallen. We fall from grace and innocence too, as we do in all forms of story. And finally, when breath ceases to rise and fall with our bodies, we die, and grieve, in life and in song. Love, longing, loss – these emotional highs and lows are written into the music of songs as much as they’re written into the lyrics. And I’d like to show you some of the ways in which these elements coincide with a self-confessed geek’s attention to detail. There are one or two technical musical references in this piece that I’m aware might appear daunting. For what it’s worth, I’m not a trained musician (not even so much as a 1980s Scottish school O’Level) and much of my own writing has been from a place of intuitive understanding. I’ve enjoyed over the past few years the process of gradually coming to an articulation of how and why and when songwriting works. If some of the detail gets a little too technical, please let the momentary fog be. It’ll pass quickly. At each stage, I’ll try my best to clarify anything that might be novel to a lay reader.
I WRITE THEN FROM A PLACE OF LOVE AND A WISH TO SHARE MY JOY AND UNDERSTANDING OF HOW AND WHY SONGS DO THEIR AMAZING- AND MOVING – EMOTIONAL WORK FOR SO MANY OF US.
This is written for you though, because you know about songs in your bones. You’ve listened to them and loved some of them dearly in your life. This is an invitation to explore the anatomy of songs in the same way that you might pay great attention to the meaning of a single gesture in the context of a choreographed piece, and how that gesture resonates with others in the arc of movement.
Ok, are we all set?
It’s 1978. I am 7 years old. My Granny Quinn has poured three tumblers of American Cream Soda from her blue crate delivery of “ginger”, as it’s called on housing schemes across western Scotland. Each week, a dozen glass bottles of fizzy, sugary juice arrive magically at council house doors like hers, courtesy of the vast lorry fleets issued from the Barr’s Irn Bru factory in Glasgow. No wonder our Scottish teeth are so rotten. My Grampa, Peter Quinn, is settling The Greatest Hits of Nat King Cole onto the fancy new silver stereo turntable. Only Jim Reeves is held in greater regard in this household.
Here comes Monalisa, with her dreams dying on her doorstep, my Grampa’s favourite. And here, from the pen of Edward Heyman and Victor Young, is Nat’s aching delivery of the romantic classic When I Fall In Love.
The opening notes of this song are the easiest of arcs. The melody climbs from below what’s known as the root of the key[i] – When – to the root note itself – I – to the fourth above – fall – before sinking back down to the third – in – and settling on the root – love. That root note – in this case it’s a Db in the key of Db major – is a kind of musical home, a place of rest. The sense of ease it offers here, the feeling of love, is only felt when there’s been travel away from home and then return. It’s all about the journey.
Listen please. I think you’ll hear it.
All song is movement across time, through a landscape of melody and harmony, tone and silence, rhythm, timbre and meaning. It’s only through sonic momentum that songs can move us. It’s why we seek them out in order to accent, or dwell in, or obliterate certain emotional states. We want to be moved. We want to move there, where they take each of us. We want to lift ourselves up, to embrace feeling down, to really feel.
With Nat King Cole’s version of When I Fall In Love, even if the numbered references to notes in relation to the key (the third, the fourth) are gibberish to our ears, even if the words themselves were in an unknown tongue, I reckon we might understand something of the hope and the longing and the resting into love intuitively from the very notes themselves. If you will, please listen again (from around 1.56). The end of the song is approaching:
“And the moment that I feel that you feel that way too …”
Become aware of how the word ‘feel’ actually feels at these two distinct points in the penultimate line of the song. The first “feel” is one of tremendous ache. It’s the melodic high point of this song, and it draws attention to itself for that reason alone. This is not only the melodic highpoint, however, it’s both the emotional and the harmonic climax too. And it’s the relationship between the note of this ‘feel’ and the instrumental backing that underpins it, which creates its emotional impact.
Whenever a song has any kind of instrumental or other vocal accompaniment, there is harmony. Harmony is the craft of combining notes together into chords, like the shapes guitarists make on fretboards. There are always multiple harmonic options to accompany any melody, each of which alters the colour and feel of the tune that sits with it.
EVEN IF THE WORDS THEMSELVES WERE IN AN UNKNOWN TONGUE, I RECKON WE MIGHT UNDERSTAND SOMETHING OF THE HOPE AND THE LONGING AND THE RESTING INTO LOVE INTUITIVELY FROM THE VERY NOTES THEMSELVES.
At this precise point in When I Fall In Love, the harmony choice underneath is what’s known in any given key as a number IV chord[ii]. In our key here, of Db major, it’s a chord called Gb major. The notes within this chord collide with the melody in a very particular fashion. Bear with me if you will. Between the Gb root of this IV chord, the place of maximum stability, and the melody note of C natural that Nat King Cole sings above it on this first iteration of ‘feel’, there is a gap, a leap up, a so-called musical “interval” that’s called a tri-tone[iii]. That you understand this intellectually is not important, because all of us make intuitive and emotional sense of intervals such as this one when we listen to a piece of music.
In Western music of the Middle Ages, the tri-tone interval was known as The Devil’s Interval (Diabolis In Musica), in explicit recognition of the discomfort and unease that it engenders. Its sonic dissonance was not considered appropriate for compositions intended to praise God. Religious celebration demanded instead harmonic sweetness and stability. It’s not in the least bit necessary for anyone to understand these technicalities in order to feel unsettled by the sound of it. It’s an anxious, tremulous, unsustainable interval, which clearly seeks some kind of movement towards resolution. And the writers of this song (and thousands of others) were well aware of this.
Something has to give here. And what gives is the second ‘feel’, which drops down and is markedly sweeter than the first. Can you hear that? Relative to the key, it’s known as the major 6th (think of the second of the opening two notes of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean). It introduces a lightsome, peaceful quality, in direct contrast to the tension just a moment before, as it dawns on the song’s narrator (hurray!) that he is loved in return.
The final line thereafter is almost a sigh, a slinking right down to ease, to home, on that Db root again. Lovely.
Songs are crafted in this kind of rising and falling, as well as in stopping and starting, stretching and eliding. They’re a musical topography of hills we climb, jagged crags we scramble across, precipices upon which our muscles strain to balance, to hold discomfort and tension, before stepping back or releasing, or tumbling into deep gullies and glens. Songs are a contained environment in which we, as listeners (or musicians ourselves) can practice movement, feel the exhilaration of ascent, the pain of irresolution, the euphoria of arrival, and, often, the blessed relief of falling, of letting tension and discord go.
ONCE THE NOTION OF A SONG’S PROSODY IS EMBODIED, YOU CAN HEAR IT EVERYWHERE, LIKE MUSICAL CHOREOGRAPHY.
Occasionally a melody line feels like a plunge into darkness. This is precisely the case on the refrain lines for a treasured song from these childhood summers with my grandparents and their posh new-fangled stereo. In that plastic-carpeted living room in the Scottish seaside town of Ayr, I’d spend hours hollering along to The Readers Digest Box Set of Country Music. My favourite of the six LPs inside was Country Ladies. Anne Murray’s winsome Snowbird flew me from Nova Scotia to Florida and Wanda Jackson bad-assed her way through The Violet and The Rose. Yet it was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe that hooked me most, years before I could possibly imagine the desperate state of mind that caused the eponymous Billie Joe McAllister’s leap from Choctaw Ridge into the Tallahatchie River.
The song was recorded in Los Angeles in 1967 as a bare bones vocal and guitar performance by the writer herself. It’s structured around an extended (double) 12 bar blues sequence. And purely by its nod to this form, the blues, we understand as listeners an implied emotional landscape that almost always evokes a degree of melancholy. There’s a harmonic simplicity and choppy rhythmic circularity to Bobbie Gentry’s guitar accompaniment that belies the craft of it. Her deadpan repetitive melody supports a narrative lyric that centres on a conversation around a rural Mississippi family dinner table. Indeed, a great deal of the lyric is stilted dialogue between family members, and Gentry’s vocal delivery retains, appropriately, something of the cadence and tone of everyday speech. The coincidence of these lyrical, rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements creates, to my ears, an underlying mood of repressed emotion and feigned indifference. Indeed this stilted emotional environment speaks volumes as the context for Billie Joe’s desperate jump. This story is not only written in the words. The music speaks too.
The dramatic core of this song is, of course, word of Billie Joe’s suicide, a leap and a fall which is mapped in a melodic plummet at the tail of each verse across more than an octave. Indeed, it falls 10 full tones from the highpoint of the song at “Choctaw Ridge”, a musical high that matches a literal geographic summit in the landscape of the song. This is subtle, clever stuff.
There’s tremendous craft in Bobby Gentry’s writing and lazy, drawling delivery. What further distinguishes the song, however, is Jimmie Haskell’s striking string arrangement[iv] . If the church establishment of the Middle Ages demanded harmony from composers, the Capitol Records HQ of the late 1960s had not dissimilar tastes. String arrangements for its artist’s songs were commissioned as a way of smoothing them out for the popular marketplace. Label A&R man Kelly Gordon was sure though that Ode To Billie Joe was destined to flop. He asked Haskell to create a string part purely to go through the necessary motions, so that the record company “won’t be embarrassed”. Haskell said later that this release from pressure to make a hit song allowed him to create “something that I liked because we thought no one was ever gonna hear it”. With this freedom, what he created is one of the most memorable and influential string orchestrations ever written for a popular song.
Please listen again to the song and notice the work of the strings. They accent the mood of unease from the very start, with their dark sliding sigh over the 4 bar instrumental introduction. Keep listening and you’ll note how they do subtle work in the first couple of verses, leaving lots of space for the vocal line and story to establish itself, whilst quietly mirroring the speech and the tone of different family members (for example, listen out around 1.30 for the doleful fall of strings under “mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe anyhow”).
In verse 3, the strings take a step up into a sweet, plaintive register as the narrator’s brother recounts a childhood memory, before ending the verse on an ominous note of droning low register cellos at that refrain again. We know from both the lyric and the music that there’s more to come, and that it will surely be no good.
FALLING IN THIS MUSICAL LANDSCAPE, AND IN THE TERRAIN OF OUR OWN HEARTS, IS AN EMBRACING OF VULNERABILITY, OF RISK, OF HOPE, OF LOVE, OF ALL EXTREMITY OF FEELING.
Haskell shows terrific judgment in dropping the strings out of the second half of the fourth, penultimate, verse (from around 3.10), which accents Gentry’s spare vocal delivery. In doing so, he draws attention, through the dark return of a lone cello under the refrain (at 3.30), to the song’s most enduringly enigmatic and unsettling image, that of Billie Joe and his girlfriend throwing something off that bridge. We never find out what it was.
It’s in the closing passages of the song though that the strings truly shine. As the central character tells us about “picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge”, the strings ascend chromatically, creating a cranky sense of mounting tension and anticipation. They reach a strained high point and hang briefly over the final sung phrase, in which she lets her flowers drop “into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge”. The final phrase is a masterpiece of narrative orchestration: a dramatic spiralling cascade, a fast and fluttery fall of strings that mimics those flowers and the dreadful plunge of Billie Joe himself, before hitting that water.
When the root of the key is reached, right at the song’s end, it’s not ease that we feel, as we did in When I Fall In Love. It is, however, most definitely finality. There is an unsettling exhalation, though the destination of this musical journey is death, rather than love.
It’s immaculate musical storytelling.
This is prosody. It’s the way in which, in a song, different elements mirror and reinforce one another – the key, rhythm, pace, melody, chords, vocal or instrumental register – how they support the song’s essential meaning. Once the notion of a song’s prosody is embodied, you can hear it everywhere, like musical choreography.
Rising and falling is pivotal to this prosodic integrity of songs. There is no music, no drama, no movement, no meaning without it. We feel tension with longing and release with falling in love. We feel discomfort in the emotional awkwardness of that family dinner table and a dreadful kind of release in Billie Joe’s falling.
Falling in song is not like an accidental loss of footing. It’s a falling in order to feel. It’s a falling that we crave. It is necessary.
Of course, it’s only possible to fall from some kind of height. And where there is falling in song, there is inevitably also rising. It’s written, for example, into the hook of Radiohead’s 2005 hit High and Dry, another song that nods to despair (or even a kind of nihilism). In the chorus, which begins – “Don’t leave me high …” – the melodic zenith of the whole song is the word “high” itself. This is no accident. Choruses of the modern pop era, with their frequent demand to soar above other parts of a song, and to lift the listener emotionally, are most often home to the highest notes of a song.
There is calculated prosodic ascent also in a global hit like Katy Perry’s Firework. The verses, which map depressed emotional states (“do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”), sit, appropriately, in her lower vocal register, hitting a melodic low at Ab below middle C. Lyrically, the pre-chorus section is about building a sense of self-respect and personal power, a sense of hope and possibility – “you just gotta ignite the light …”. And here, musically, the song creeps up the Ab scale across more than an octave, creating mounting tension through the stepped rise in pitch. The emotional release from this tension and the melodic highpoint of the whole song comes in the chorus with its central metaphor of a firework. Here we hit Eb in the second octave above Middle C.
I’ve used intentional prosodic devices myself to map explicit lyrical allusions to rising and falling in musical ways. I co-wrote the opening track of my 2012 album Traces – a song called Cover Your Eyes, in response to Anthony Baxter’s award-winning documentary feature You’ve Been Trumped[v]. The film investigates the malign environmental and social impact of Donald Trump’s Trump International Golf Course, an executive development sited within the fragile ecosystem of a rural Aberdeenshire coastline. I wanted to capture in the music itself some of the elemental qualities of this unique strip of mutable land and sea; to nod to the power and constancy of the tides and to conjure the possibility of a future karmic payback for Donald Trump and his golfing elite.
In the recurring lyrical phrase towards the end of each verse – “and the waves fall” – there’s a simple stacked ascent of vocal harmony (only two extra voices) and a shimmering cymbal swell overlaid upon the long static melody note of the word “waves”. It’s intended to feel like an incoming wave cresting and landing. By contrast, underneath the opening lyric phrase of each chorus – “and the tide still ebbs and flows” – I wanted to accent circularity and constancy. Here, the guitar is deliberately rippling, mellifluous and repetitive.
And finally, following the last line of each chorus – “the haar will stumble in” (haar is dense east coast of Scotland sea mist) – there’s a jagged harmonic guitar part designed to evoke precisely this erratic stumbling movement.
Our tacit awareness of prosody, as listeners, our sense of what different musical moods sound and feel like, enables songwriters to play around with some of our expectations for effect also. American songwriter Sufjan Stevens, for example, is adept at creating pathos through the apparent collision of a song’s theme and its musical form and feel. Casimir Pulaski Day from his brilliant album Come On Feel The Illinoise is a sweet rolling style banjo ballad that builds over a conventional repetitive chord structure (it’s dirt simple throughout: D, C, Am, G). Stripped of its lyric content the music has a light, whimsical, naive quality. The lyric though is a story of loss, a song about the premature death of a childhood friend from bone cancer. There’s no sense in which the music alone encourages us to tumble or sink into this dark place, as we might expect in a song that touches on bereavement. Yet the youthful loss and pathos are accented all the more because of the levity and ambling restraint of the musical container, rather than despite it.
It’s all very simple stuff, and intended to be subtly supportive, if not downright invisible. For when the slickness of a musical device draws too much attention to itself in its own right, it is pulling the ear and heart away from a song’s deeper truth.
Each of these song examples I’ve referenced includes some explicit lyrical reference to highs and lows, climbs and falls, or to things we associate with this kind of movement, like waves and fireworks. Prosody has much broader relevance than this though because falling and rising, the highs and the lows, are such entrenched and pervasive metaphors for our emotional experience. Celebratory songs, songs of fortitude or freedom, will often occupy anthemic high registers in their hook lines. Laments and break-up songs will often mirror aching. And lullabies will rise and fall gently, steadily, like breath, like sleep.
Popular songs, for the most part, occupy a terrain dominated by love, loss and longing. As listeners and singers, we ride these ups and downs. We seek them out. We embody them for the duration of a song. Songs are a little like lightning rods. They light up what the Spanish poet Antonio Machado called “the inner sky”[vi], allowing us to inhabit an emotional landscape utterly, be immersed in that place it conjures. And to do that most effectively, every aspect of a song has to be in service of its emotional intent – through prosody. Only then can a feeling release itself, earth itself, and truly land in us.
In song, falling is often what we want and need. Falling in this musical landscape, and in the terrain of our own hearts, is an embracing of vulnerability, of risk, of hope, of love, of all extremity of feeling. It’s both an embrace of and a conscious letting go of the hurt and pain embedded in prosodic musical tension. Falling in song is not a weakness. It is a necessity. What we sing is what we know. What we sing is what we live.
AUTHOR: KARINE POLWART
Sincere thanks to David Milligan for double-checking my musical accuracy and to Liam Hurley for critical feedback.
[i] If the notion of musical intervals is new to you, hum to yourself the major scale of ‘Doe-A-Deer’. Do is the root note of the key, Re is a major second, Mi is the major third and so on counting up the scale until you hit the high Do that begins the next octave. To refer to the second, third, sixth etc. is just a handy way of describing the distance between the root of a key and the other notes within it.
[ii] Musical keys are named according to the root note on which they start. The key of Dbmajor climbs up a scale of seven notes beginning on Db – the black key above Middle C on a piano. It ascends through an octave (again this is like singing Doe-A-Deer where Do in this case is Db) like this: Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db. These notes of the scale are linked to seven key chords that “fit” within the key, each of which is numbered. For Dbmajor these chords are: I – Dbmajor, II – Ebminor, III – Fminor, IV – Gbmajor, V – Abmajor, VI – Bbminor, VII – C(half)diminished. All the chords have as their root the corresponding note in the Db scale. There are some variants of these chords but we don’t need to go there …
[iii] The interval of a tri-tone is a step up any scale of three full tones. To get from Gb to C we move like this: Gb – G – Ab – A – Bb – B – C. Each step up is a semi-tone jump. The six steps here amount to three tones. By the by, the interval can be heard in an even more pronounced fashion in Chet Baker’s version of the song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHXuCBMItOo. But Chet Baker never got played in my granny’s living room …
[iv] For more on the song’s orchestration and release see http://jazzbackstory.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/an-ode-to-billie-joes-arranger.html and http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
[v] The film won multiple international Film Festival documentary awards in 2012. Find out more at http://www.youvebeentrumped.com/youvebeentrumped.com/THE_MOVIE.html
[vi] From Antonio Machado’s Nothing as translated by Don Paterson, The Eyes (London: Faber&Faber, 1999)