Two of the things we value about music is its power to communicate and to convey emotion. We look at and listen to great performers and the way they show us emotional power seems almost magical.

But it isn’t magic; it’s a carefully thought out and skillful approach, deliberate actions that convey meaning to us. The effect is magical, in the right hands. But it’s founded on good songwriting and good performing craft.

One of the ways in which it is done, in song, is using an approach called ‘word-painting’. Word painting is when the melody of a song actually reflects the meaning of the words. 

The best way to learn about it is to listen. So here are three songs to listen to, with a hint as to what to listen for... as part of Sounds Like..., our monthly series of songs and music representing a different theme.

We’ll start with Wham! And ‘Wake me Up’. There are two really obvious examples of word painting in the chorus … the first is that every time ‘Wake me Up’ appears in the lyrics, the melody rises with the top note of the phrase being ‘up’. It’s good for other reasons too (eg the line of ‘Wake me up’ also follows how you’d say it, enthusiastically – your voice would rise towards ‘up’).

The second example (you might be ahead of us now) is ‘I wanna hit that high’ and high is... you’ve guessed it... The highest and most dramatic word (and note) of the chorus:

Moving on from the heat of Wham! to something more modern, we have one of Elsa’s songs in ‘Frozen 2’. This one is set up nicely, right from the beginning of the lyrics, which begin using a limited range of notes in each verse, which begins to grow towards the end of the verse until we get the great leap ‘Into the Unknown’. The melody literally leaps to notes we haven’t had before... namely into the unknown:

Word painting isn’t a modern invention though, and so our final example is a little older, and bigger.

Here are the words:

The day’s grown old, the fainting sun, has but a little way to run, and yet his steed with all his skill, scarce lug the chariot down the hill (Charles Cotton, 17th century poet)

So this is a description of a sunset, with the poet telling us it’s going very slowly. And it was set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1942. The opening phrase in the paints a grand sweep down, painting the sun dropping towards the horizon – ‘The day’s grown old, the fainting sun’. The next line uses tiny steps between notes ‘has just a little way to run’. The third line isn’t word painting as such, as it climbs, though it does sound like a huge effort; it’s dragging us up to the top, and the final line is our slow descent ‘scarce lug the chariot down the hill’, again full of effort, as the sun descends, slowly (the song begins at 1.20 on this video)...

So, there you have it: Word Painting. Part of the craft of song-writing. Not magic; more skill, creativity and inspiration.