There are countless tools we can use when we construct a song. And word painting is one of the tools in a songwriter’s toolbox. It’s one of the ways to connect the text with the music itself. Word painting is the technique of creating lyrics that describe the underlying music literally, or vice versa. But it’s actually not a very new concept, it has been used by many composers in the past. Word painting developed especially in the late 16th century among Italian and English composers, for example, George Frideric Handel. Now, let’s see some examples of word painting in today’s pop songs.
Using the word “stop” just before the music stops is one of the most overused clichés in songwriting. So it’s probably not a good idea to use it. You can hear this in many songs, but one of the examples is the song “Lucky” by Britney Spears. When she sings “But tell me what happens when it stops?”, the music literally stops there.
This is another very often used technique for word painting. The sound of knocking is a percussive sound, so it’s easy to imitate it with drums. Interestingly, the previous song example contains this knocking sound too. When she sings “Knock, knock, knock on the door”, there is a drum sound playing three “knocks” in the tempo of the song.
It’s not so obvious when the word painting “high” occurs in a song. But there are many songs that use this technique. When this happens, the vocalist sings a high note on the word “high”. This happens in the song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! when George Michael sings the words “I don’t wanna miss it when you hit that high“, the last note on the word “high” is a really high note.
The opposite of high is of course, “low”. It’s probably used less often, but there are a few songs I know in which they used the word “low” on a very low note. For example, in the song “Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks. When he starts to sing the first line of the chorus (which contains the title of the song), he sings a really low note on the word “low”.
“‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places”
The human heartbeat makes a low, percussive beat, but it’s also a very dampened sound. This is imitated in a very good way in the song “Adventure Of a Lifetime” by Coldplay. The word painting in this song is my personal favorite. We can hear it in the pre-chorus when he sings “I feel my heart beating”. When he sings that line, the song becomes almost empty, we can only hear the vocal, the bass, and the kick drum. And both the bass and the drum sound are dampened, which resembles the sound of a heartbeat.
Waltz is traditional dance music written in 3/4 time. But almost all pop songs are written in 4/4 time today. So how do you imitate the sound of waltz? By changing the meter from 4/4 to 3/4 – of course. We can hear this in the song “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. The song starts with 4/4 time, but when they sing the words “Henry The Horse dances the waltz”, the song goes into a 3/4 time typical waltz rhythm.
There is one obvious way to imitate the sound of an explosion – hitting one of the cymbals or the snare, or both. But it’s also possible the use word paint with the melody. In the song “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen, when he sings “Like an atom bomb about to Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, explode“, the melody notes start to go up and up, and it goes to the tonal center of the song on the top when he reaches the word “explode”.
Major to Minor
Musicians know what major and minor chords are. But sometimes songwriters write these things in the lyrics, exactly where they change the chords to a major or a minor chord. We can hear this in the song “Every Time We Say Goodbye” by Cole Porter. When the vocalist sings the words “From major to minor”, there is a major chord under the word “major”, and a minor chord under the word “minor”. A very similar thing happens in the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. He sings “The minor falls, the major lifts”, with a minor chord on the word “minor” and a major chord on the word “major”.
Even though “Despacito” was a huge world hit a few years ago, not many people know the meaning of the lyrics. The word Despacito means “slowly”. This is how the chorus starts, and when he sings those syllables, the actual tempo of the music slows down.
One of the tools in a songwriter’s toolbox is modulation, or in other words, key change. And we can hear a key change in the song “Man In The Mirror” by Michael Jackson when he sings the word “change” in the last chorus. The song starts in the key of G major, but on the word “change”, it goes to Ab major.
So we have seen and heard examples of word painting not only with vocal melody notes but with drums and other instruments too. The song “Fireflies” by Owl City starts with a keyboard sound that is high in pitch. And those tiny, sweet, short notes in the upper register really sound like fireflies in the night.
The secret pattern behind successful songs
Get the eBook for $4.99