Poetry and Music: Steps to Composing

2011Symposium_1_2Much like a writer of prose, a poet or a composer ought to have an intent in mind when writing a poem or musical work, respectively. The use of language in a poem can be quite expressive, going beyond the literal meaning of prose, and the notes in a musical work are always expressive because they have no explicit literal meaning. Above the deep structures of poetry and music there is a commonality between these two artistic forms, and it is this commonality that makes poetry and music such frequent and suitable partners in countless songs, where poetry is set to music. That commonality is rhythmic structure, which includes rhythm and meter. Both music and poetry have both of these elements, and because of this, rhythm and meter in poetry can be a tool for teaching and learning musical composition.

Because it is late in December, let us take the classic poem “The Night Before Christmas” as an example. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians not withstanding, many people naturally fall into a lilting triple meter when they read this poem. Others find a duple meter works, but in nearly all cases students agree that the poem begins with an anacrusis on the words “’twas the.” I recently assigned small groups of students to compose music for one eight-line stanza of the poem. The group that worked on the first stanza indeed settled into a triple meter. They imagined it begin sung by the Chipmunks, and enjoyed swaying to and fro as they sang their creation. The group that did the second stanza, which began “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,” enjoyed a duple meter, with eighth notes everywhere except on “lawn” and “clatter.” It took some work for the singer who came up with that rhythm and the student who was working on the beat to agree on how they would fit together, but through the valuable process of talking about it and trying different ways of making it work, they prepared a class performance of their work. The important idea here is that poetry has rhythm and meter, but when setting it to music a composer can choose from several possible rhythms and meters according to his or her intent.

Intent is an expressive matter. A composer or poet must have something to express in their work. For “The Night thinking musicBefore Christmas,” I added an annotation in the margins for each eight-measure stanza. Lines 1-8 are “quiet and still” as the household is settled in for their nights sleep. Lines 9-16 are “noisy and busy” as the narrator hears the clattering arrival of the sleigh. In lines 17-24, Santa’s actions and words are recorded. One can imagine the narrator’s emotions changing from surprise and being startled to building excitement as Santa calls his reindeer by name. The excitement, now mixed with some fear builds in lines 25-32 as Santa enters the house. The narrator describes Santa in lines 33-40, and on into the next stanza, which ends with the anxiety and fear subsiding as he says he “had nothing to dread.” Finally, the whole adventure comes to an end as Santa drives off, and the narrator is left with a memory of lifetime.

Each of these annotations provides an intent for the student composers. For example, the intent of the composer of the first stanza is to compose music that sets the quiet and motionless mood of a darkened house where everyone is asleep. The intent of the composer of the second stanza is to write a contrasting section that initially startles the listener and expresses the sudden animation of being roused from bed and slumber by a sudden noise that demands investigating. By using what the poetry provides, the composer goes beyond merely setting words to music. Composing music for lyrics requires more than just finding rhythmic and metric matches for each syllable; the intent of the poet becomes the intent of the composer as the latter attempts to clarify and magnify the expressive affect of the poetry with the adding of music. When done well, it sounds as if the poetry were written especially for that music, and only that music could be used. Because the first idea that comes to a composer’s mind is often not the best that will come to mind, it is essential that students generate as many possibilities as possible, and then, choose the one that bets expresses the intent. Working in groups is helpful for this, because groups of students can generate more ideas, and therefore have a better selection of ideas from which to choose. In the process of composing from and for a poem, students learn how to use music to be expressive in a way that exceeds or at least is comparable to how they use language.

I will be away from Mr A Music Place for the Christmas and New Year holidays. My next post will be on Friday, January 2, 2015. Have happy and safe holidays.


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