Oh, that song has words?

Singing has an amazing potential to reach people. Words set to music creates “song”. Singers, generally speaking, are a different type of musician than instrumentalists in a fundamental way because of the union of music and words. What a wonderful opportunity we have as singers!

The singing performances that touch the heart are those that honor the words and the music. A disconnect between the two can be a negative experience for the listener, ranging from obnoxious to ridiculous to boring. A beautiful and moving union of words and music does not require a perfect voice, or an acting degree from Yale. But it does require commitment, understanding, and a desire to communicate.

The rash of singing competitions on TV and Youtube clips of child “stars” singing songs and arias with lyrics that they don’t understand has contributed to an escalation in “impressiveness”, emphasizing power, high notes, and domination of the material. This “impressive singing” can show certain vocal strengths but it does not equate to artistry or expression. It says “I am trying to impress you with my vocal confidence and boldness.” Performances of an intimate, tender, or subtle nature are not celebrated by the modern mass media, although many of us hold such performances dear.

When you sing a song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and you give no hint of a story, no sign of longing or desire, no encouragement to imagine something beyond the ordinary, what are you doing? You might as well change the lyrics to repetitions of “Look at me, listen to me!”

One could call this missing thing in singing “acting” or “feeling” or “connecting to the lyric”. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t happen enough in the mass media. The lack of care for the lyrics happens across all styles. Only in Musical Theatre do we usually have better attempts to make the words come alive with the music. In pop, opera, country, and praise bands, it’s all style and no substance the vast majority of the time.

When a vocalist stands in front of the band or orchestra, what that singer “says” with the combination of music and lyrics has so much potential. Why leave the lyrics behind? Say something! Tell a story! Make us believe something for a moment! We will notice if you have a great voice, that you are impressive, that you are in control – in due time.

If you are a singer, please take some time with the words of your song and ask yourself some simple questions. What is the story here? What is the point? How does the music add to the words? What do you want to give to your audience?

If your primary goal is “to impress the judges” then you are going to be just another race horse. If you want to say something real with the song/aria, you are on to something, because no two people will express the same words and tune the same way. People will respond to the inevitable individuality that a thoughtful, honest expression coming through a new person will bring forth.

2 Replies to “Oh, that song has words?”

  1. If you’re an instrumentalist who plays songs, please learn the lyrics and phrase the melody accordingly. If you do that your performance will be appreciated by the people who know the lyrics. If you don’t do that you will broadcast to anyone who knows the lyrics “I don’t know the lyrics to this song!”.

    1. John, so nice to hear from you, as you are someone who has always bridged the divide between song and instrumental pieces so expertly. Thanks for writing!

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