Setting Text in Vocal & Choral Music - Advice from Melissa Dunphy
American Composers Forum of American Composers Forum
September 17, 2019
Hi, I'm Melissa Dunphy and I'm a composer. My favorite thing about writing vocal music is working with texts. Sometimes, choosing a text is the most difficult, but also the most exciting thing about writing for choir. I love working with super challenging texts that nobody would think of setting to music, as well as texts that have already been set to music a million times, because every composer is going to put a different spin on the words by adding their music to them. And, it can be really fun to see how your version of a text is going to be different to another composer’s. I think though, that before you set a single word to music, you have to really understand the text, which not only means understanding every word and knowing how every word is pronounced, but understanding what that text is trying to say and how your musical setting will fit the text, or maybe even alter the meaning of the text.
I come from a theater background. So for me, setting text to music always starts with speaking the text out loud. I'm going to show you a bit of text that I set recently, and I'm showing you this because it's one of those examples of words that a lot of composers would probably shy away from setting to music. It's from Testimony by Christine Blasey Ford at Brett Kavanaugh's Confirmation Hearing to the Supreme Court last year.
‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense…’
The first thing I made sure of when I was setting these words is that I understood the meaning of all of them - because a few of those words are pretty hefty. Indelible means: it can't be forgotten or removed. The hippocampus is a part of the brain involved forming memories. Uproarious means very loud and boisterous, like an uproar.
The second thing that I make sure of is that I know exactly how to pronounce each of these words - in particular, where the emphasis or the stress falls on each word, and within each sentence - which are the most important words that you really want to stress. So, sometimes I'll clap it out, which just means that I clap the rhythm of the words as I'm going, making sure that I clap on the strong sounding beats within each word.
‘Indelible in the hippo campus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense…’
Understanding where these stresses fall, or where you think the stresses fall in a sentence, and how the language guides the rhythm in the music is called prosody. One of my professors used to explain it to me like this: “don't put the emphasis on the wrong syllable”.
If you do this, it will make the words feel sort of uncomfortable for the singers to sing. And maybe more importantly, it makes the words less able to be understood by the audience.
You want the stressed syllables in the words, and the most important words in each sentence, to fall on strong beats in the bar, or be otherwise emphasized in such a way so that you're not distorting the word in the way that it's pronounced. So let's take the first word in that text before – indelible. The stress is on the second syllable here, right? ‘del’. If we were to set up a beat and say the word to the beat, it would go something like indelible. That ‘del’ really wants to be on the first beat of a bar. If you were to put ‘in’ on the first beat, and have ‘del’ come on the second beat, it would sound really weird in ‘indelible’. Ok now, the word doesn't even make sense. So, stresses and emphasis are really important.
Let me say that whole first line out to a beat. I'm going to do this with a triple beat. So 1, 2, 3 ‘indelible in the hippocampus’. Ok, wait - I thought that ‘in the’, in the way I just said it, is a little bit too strong, right? I put ‘in the’ on the third beat, ‘indelible in the’ – maybe, I should wait to put ‘in the’ on the last eighth note of the bar, because the way it was on the third beat, it made it feel sort of stodgy ‘in the hippocampus’. And it made the word ‘in’ sound a little bit too important. Remember, if you're saying that sentence out loud, it's ‘indelible in the hippocampus’ – ‘in the’ is really quick, and kind of unimportant. So again, to a beat, ‘indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter’. It sounds more natural when you do it like that, right? And you could argue that it sounds more musical, and the music was right there, in the language, the whole time. What I ended up doing with indelible when I finally set it in this choral work is, I actually started ‘in’ on the first beat of a bar, but then I waited that whole bar and put ‘del’ the strong syllable, on the first beat of the second bar - so that the words still makes sense.
Only after really thinking about the rhythm of all of the words, and the sentences, and how it's going to fall in each measure, do I start to think about the melody itself. And I came up with ‘indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter’.
I'm going to play you recording now of a choir - who can all sing much better than I can - singing this first part of the song so that you can hear how I ended up setting it. Check out where the important words are in each measure, and where the important syllables are in the beats.
(Music recording of Listen – 2018)
I could talk about prosody all day, because I really love talking about language and words. But I hope that this has given you just a little introduction to good prosody in choral writing. Remember, #1 Rule - don't put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. And second, always remember if you are ever stuck, or in doubt, step away from the staff, and read the text out loud again yourself. I really believe that all texts have music buried inside them. And sometimes you just need to really live with the words for a while before you figure out what that music wants to be.