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Writing for Singers - Part II

David Berger


Just before his untimely death, I enlisted my good friend and lyricist Paul Mendenhall to express things that could be helpful to us composers and arrangers. Here’s what he had to say:


From a lyricist’s point of view, the first requirement of a musical arrangement is that the words be intelligible. This may seem self-evident, but take a listen to most popular songs today: how many of the words can you understand? Are you sure? As someone who has spent years not only singing the wrong words to various pop songs, but even having the title wrong, trust me when I say you are probably mistaken in what you think the song is saying. There are many reasons for this.
The foremost reason is changing technology. Before amplification, a singer had only their voice and whatever acoustics they were dealing with to help them in getting the words across. This forced them to project, and to enunciate clearly; both nearly lost arts today. But it is not only the singers who have been affected. The ability to simply raise or lower the volume on various sections of the orchestra (or band) by an engineer at a sound board has led to an erosion of the skill musical arrangers used to have in making an arrangement supportive of the singer. I am no musician, so the terms I use for such matters are my own, but I think of this quality as “transparency.” Now, one is all too often confronted with an impenetrable wall of sound that competes with, and often defeats, the singer.
Another reason is the rise of rock in the fifties and sixties as the dominant form of popular music. It was the essence of rock to be rebellious in its attitude toward all accepted cultural norms, including literate, sophisticated lyrics. Of course, by this point in history, rock has been the music of the establishment for decades, so such contempt for formal niceties is nothing more than an affectation. Nevertheless, the prejudice remains. Read any rock critic, and the derision for any song with intelligent, well-structured lyrics is palpable. That being the case, what motivation does any arranger of new pop material have to help the lyrics along? If the words are poor, better to let them sink into the overall wash of sound than risk anyone realizing what dreck they are. (Not that it would much matter if they DID hear the words. I once was discussing some band with a guy at a gym. I said that I didn’t much like their lyrics, and he said: “Oh, I never pay attention to the words.” “You’ve been singing along for five minutes,” I pointed out. “Really?” he answered. So there you are.)
As a practitioner of the lyricist’s craft, and one who aspires to meet the standards of the great wordsmiths of what is now being called the golden age of American songwriting, I find this situation unfortunate, to put it mildly. But, there is a glimmer of hope. A resurgence of interest in the Great American Songbook has been growing of late. Ears and minds grown slack and dull from a diet of clichés, vulgarity and insulting stupidity are rediscovering the pleasure and stimulation to be gained from exposure to their birthright: songs of style, grace, charm, wit and craft. They are finding that the tried-and-true rules of traditional songwriting, far from being stultifying, were actually liberating. Limitation is the friend of art.
This may require some explanation. Say that I am writing a lyric to a sentimental Italian-sounding tune. I don’t want to fill it with Italian words, because I have an aversion to using foreign words, which then have to be rhymed. They either must rhyme with other Italian words, or with English words, which is certain to sound affected and silly. That could work in a song that is light-hearted and fun, as it did in That’s Amore. But this isn’t that kind of melody. So the words must evoke Italy without using Italian. That is one limitation.
Then there is the number of notes per line, which generally establishes the number of syllables as well. (One of the big improvements the Golden Age lyricists made on their predecessors was the elimination of melismas, the stretching of one word over two or more notes. Sadly, this has returned with a vengeance in modern pop.)
Third, each syllable must be stressed as it would be in speech. No em-PHA-sis on the wrong syll-A-ble.
Fourth, the rhymes must be true rhymes, none of the assonance, “eye rhymes,” near rhymes, and other slop which is endemic in today’s pop, and grates on the ear of anyone who knows better.
Fifth, sentimentality, clichés, trite turns of phrase, and so on must be avoided, while still conveying a sentiment that most listeners will relate to.
I could go on, but you get the point: writing lyrics correctly is an activity hemmed-in on all sides by limitations. And yes, this can be extremely frustrating; so much so that one writer has said it is “as much fun as doing one’s own root-canal.” And yet, as I implied, those very limitations are the lyricist’s best allies. There is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. Where to begin? When the possibilities are endless, one flounders. But when 99% of one’s options are gone from the start, it is far easier. And paradoxically, it leads to creative avenues one would never have considered. I have sometimes been asked: “What ever made you think of THAT?” in reference to some line the listener admired. If I am being honest, I must shrug and admit: “I was just looking for a rhyme.”
Perhaps more to the point for music arrangers, correct lyrical technique is not just a desire for craft for craft’s sake; it makes the singer’s job far easier. Words that sit properly on the music and rhyme correctly are far easier for the listener to catch. They work hand-in-hand with the music, rather than war with it. This also assists the arranger, in that he or she need be less concerned with intelligibility—but not entirely unconcerned.
Of course, there is more to this than merely allowing the words to be heard. David makes the point that for the best singers and instrumentalists, the words are primary. He believes this should be the case for the arranger as well. An artful arrangement will support and even develop the lyric, adding layers of meaning and emotion. In some cases, it can even be effective to subvert the lyric, working at cross-purposes to it in order to achieve a particular effect. The lyric might be saying one thing, while the music is telling us something else. This is most likely to occur in a dramatic context, where subtext is of great importance. (For grand examples of this, listen to Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations of Stephen Sondheim’s scores.)
All the contributors to a song place limitations on each other, and in the process reveal creative opportunities.


As you might imagine from what Paul had to say, working with an artistic, articulate lyricist who knows the territory can be most helpful to any arranger and/or composer.


It’s always struck me that the three greatest arrangers in jazz were pianists (Ellington, Strayhorn and Gil Evans), and many of the worst arrangers were also pianists (just about every singer’s accompanist). Although pianists generally have more harmonic skills than other instrumentalists, they rarely understand that the 4th tenor is not their left ring finger. Hopefully this book will be helpful to accompanists in understanding horns, jazz arrangers in learning how to make singers sound good without the arranger losing his or her integrity, and anyone else who enjoys playing or just listening to songs.


In order to avoid excessive repetition, I suggest that if you haven’t read Volume 1 of this series, you do so before reading any further in this volume. All the principles explored there for writing instrumental music apply here. The history of music (and especially jazz) shows us that the instrumentalists copied the vocalists to sound more human and then the vocalists copied the instrumentalists to sound more intellectual.


Throughout my career I have encountered instrumentalists who despised vocalists of all kinds. I see this attitude as akin to hating a part of oneself. Over the course of my 50 years in the music business, I have suffered my share of talentless unskilled singers, but all that has been forgiven many times over when Jon Hendricks, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Kathleen Battle, Milt Grayson, Priscilla Baskerville and the scores of other wonderful singers I’ve been honored to work with have opened their mouths and uttered the first word at letter A.



The text above is the second half of the introduction of my upcoming book, "Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging, Volume II: Writing for Singers." In this book we will look at songwriting as well as arranging and orchestrating settings for songs. I’m not a lyricist, and I don’t play a lyricist on TV, but I’ve worked with some great lyricists. I’ll discuss various methods of collaborating as well as construction, word painting and story telling.



Preorder the new book now! Just click the image below.

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