Jan 132014

Song writing with Carner and Gregor (page 2)

This is page 2 of an excerpt from the Carner and Gregor blog on the process behind their song writing. The song being discussed here is “Dancing in Pairs” from their song Cycle “Island Song”

The interplay of sound

In literary critic Kenneth Burke’s 1940 article “On Musicality in Verse: As Illustrated by Some Lines of Coleridge,” he discusses, among other things, the ideas of “augmentation” and “diminution” of sound in poetry. When a certain group of phonemes (single sounds, whether consonants or vowels) is repeated with other phonemes in the middle, we feel a sense of expansion or augmentation; Burke’s example is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “she sent the gentle sleep from heaven / that slid into my soul,” where the sl of sleep and slid is expanded in soul. We may be conscious of a similar sense of contraction or diminution when a group of phonemes is repeated without intervening phonemes—as when moving from the longer phrase “when murmurred” to the shorter “words.”

This technique can be used to create a general jingle or musicality, but it can also be used to enact in sound what the verse is talking about. I think this happens a couple of times in “Dancing in Pairs,” particularly in the second stanza. First is a diminution:

long before these flashes woke us, we could focus

Here, flashes woke us becomes focused into focus, and we hear what is being described. Later on in the stanza, the reverse (augmentation) happens:

on the gaze that gave the necessary cues (where S is a Z sound)

Here gaze is expanded, like the hints it offers, into something larger.

Again, this is not a conscious thing. Moreover, it’s not permanent. The same sounds can be used to create a different effect in a different circumstance. But a certain constellation of sounds, paired with a certain dramatic context, can seem to enact that context. As my former poetry professor John Hollander put it, “sounds don’t have any inherent meaning, but the poet creates a temporary fiction that they do.”

In the final stanza of the song, as the singer imagines the dancers disappearing into the pre-dawn night and love, the dreaminess is heightened by the swirl of repeating sounds. The passage is chock-full of “aw” (walked, on, dawn, caught, gone), with some other vowels repeating as well (“one another’s,” “waned as they,” etc.)

This stanza echoes even more than it appears to on the page, because T, D, N, and TH are all related sounds. Phonetics alert… but it’s not that complicated, and you can try this out in your own mouth (not as much fun as a scratch-and-sniff blog, but I do what I can):

T, D, N, and TH are all inter-dental consonants; in other words, these sounds are made by putting the tongue against the back of the teeth. T is made by cutting off the air flow with the tongue against the teeth briefly (known as an unvoiced stop), D is made by cutting off the air flow while the vocal chords are engaged (known as a voiced stop), N is made by cutting off the air flow while redirecting the air through the nose (known as a nasal), and TH is made by holding the tongue near the back of the teeth while air is forced through (known as a fricative). Because they are all inter-dentals, they all have similar sounds; T feels a lot closer to N than it does to B, for instance.

As an example of this, imagine you have a head cold and say, “I know the knob has been tightened,” and it will come out more like “I doe dee dob has bid-ided”

Similarly, P, B, M, F, and V are all related sounds, all made between the lips and thus known as labial consonants (yes, Derek, I just wrote the word “labial”). P is the labial unvoiced stop, B is the labial voiced stop, M is the labial nasal, F is the labial unvoiced fricative, and V is the labial voiced fricative.

In the same article as referenced above, Burke points out this aspect of phonetics and discusses what he calls “concealed alliteration” in verse. In other words, because of the close relationship of some of these sounds, phrases that don’t appear alliterative on paper can feel alliterative. One of Burke’s examples is Collerige’s phrase “bathed by the mist,” where we get a b__ b__ m__ concealed labial alliteration, in addition to a __thd __th __t concealed inter-dental alliteration. We find the same kind of concealed alliteration at work in the opening of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, not only in the phrase into the woods, but also in the phrase, “I must begin my journey,” where we get both the m__ b__ m__ sequence and the __t __n __n sequence.

Let us turn again to the inter-dentals in the last stanza of “Dancing in Pairs”:

Then out into the night, the moonlight waned as they walked on” has a lot more alliteration than it would appear to on it’s face. And so does the next phrase, “And into one another’s eyes, before the rising dawn had caughtthem, they’d be gone.” Again, try saying these two phrases with a head cold, and you’ll hear the alliteration even more strongly.

By the same token, C, G, and NG are all made in the same part of the mouth, by putting the middle of the tongue against the roof of the mouth (or palate). C is a palatal unvoiced stop, G is a palatal voiced stop, and NG is a palatal nasal. So the progression at the very end of the song has another hidden alliteration as well: rising dawn had caught them, they’d be gone.

So, if these lines at the end of the song feel as echoey to you as they do to me, this may be part of the reason why. Perhaps they echo even more because the alliteration is concealed and we’re not fully conscious of the repetition.

I can’t imagine that any lyricist would ever set out to create a dreamy effect through the use of repeating inter-dental consonants, but this sort of thing is why one phrase might be kept and another might be discarded. I’ll find that sometimes something “sounds right,” and in this case, I think this may be why this constellation of sounds sounded right to me. By the same token, when a phrase “sounds wrong,” sometimes that’s because the sound of the phrase appears to enact something other than what the passage is talking about.

And for all of the singers who are reading this, this interplay of sounds is why a lyricist might sometimes insist on you delivering the lyrics exactly as written. “Could be” and “Might be” may mean essentially the same thing. But, if there’s a certain sound structure set up, they may really not be the same thing after all.

These excerpts from the Carner and Gregor blog are reproduced with permission from Sam Carner

Click here to go back to page 1 of The Process of Song Writing