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Old 01-24-2018, 05:41 PM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Default Stresses in words and music

In another thread we've been discussing song lyrics as a type of poetry. I hope that and the idea that one way of understanding mastery is to look at its lack might make this an appropriate thread for this forum.

Both a lyric (like any collection of syllables) and a melody can be viewed as patterns of stresses. Artfully combining the two patterns (usually by matching them) seems to me a big part of songwriting. When the two patterns don't match, it often feels to me that the songwriter has goofed. One glaring example is from Stevie Nicks's "Dreams." In this and my other example, I won't put in all the stresses, only the ones I want to focus on.

When the rain wash-ES you clean, you'll know.

(at 1:35 (first instance) in this version)

Among the problems with this awkward stress is that it makes the words difficult to understand. I wondered for years what the hell Nicks was singing before I finally looked up the lyric online.

Mismatched stresses don't always seem big errors. I'm discovering a lot of Harry Chapin's songs, and his frequent failure to match stresses hasn't prevented them from impressing me. Here's an example from a song I've known for a longer time, "Cat's in the Cradle," lyric by Sandy Chapin:

He learned to walk while I WAS a-way.

(at :22 in this version)

Among the reasons this bothers me less than the Nicks example is that it doesn't make the words hard to understand. It may also be that the Chapins' straightforward, artless-feeling style helps what might feel like a failure of art not to matter as much.

I'd be interested in others' thoughts about this, and other examples of successful songwriters not matching stresses. I hope that there are examples in which the mismatches somehow enhance the songs. I haven't been able to think of any.

Last edited by Max Goodman; 01-25-2018 at 10:07 PM. Reason: correcting title "Cat's in the Cradle"--Thanks, John.
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Old 01-24-2018, 06:34 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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"Cat's in the Cradle" is Harry Chapin? Great song! So I guess I know some of his work.
"Guitar Man", as sung by Elvis, stresses the first syllable and confused or perturbed me for a long time. I wonder whether that stress, which shows up in other songs, is purely for the beat, to have both options.

Cheers,
John

Elvis Presley - Guitar Man - YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QV1z4NPoIoI
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Old 01-24-2018, 07:31 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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It nagged at me for a while: Bob Dylan, in "Senor", sings "Can't stand the SUSpense anymore." Which is arguably pretty egregious.

Cheers,
John

Bob Dylan-Senor (Original) - YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FodE0yEaK0
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Old 01-25-2018, 10:06 PM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Thanks for contributing these, John.

Merriam-Webster associates the stress of the first syllable of "guitar" with the southern and midland U.S. The Dylan pronunciation has a similar feel to me, sort of from a dialect, but it might just be sloppiness.

Last edited by Max Goodman; 01-25-2018 at 10:11 PM.
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Old 01-25-2018, 11:36 PM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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It's GUI-tar in "Mama Don't Allow No Guitar Playin' 'Round Here."

Arlo Guthrie says "GUI-tar" several times in "Alice's Restaurant," too.

Definitely a regional variant, rather than a metrical infelicity.

Putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble happens occasionally in stuff I sing in church, but now I can't remember any examples.

(Hymns with wrenched, rhyme-driven syntax are more common, and annoy me far more. I'll forgive the narrators of the carol "We Three Kings" for their tendency to speak like Yoda, because they're supposed to be foreign and exotic, but I usually sigh at the rest.)

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 01-26-2018 at 07:07 PM. Reason: Bad link
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Old 01-26-2018, 01:11 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Thanks, Max and Julie, for those thoughts on GUI-tar. You also get it in The Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats" - "There's 1346 guitar players in Nashville" - and I have a hunch it may be the standard pronunciation in country music. You won't hear it from UK bands except as an affectation or conceivably for the beat.
Dylan's SUS-pense, though he's almost always folksy, feels to me like a cheat. Not common for him, but I'll grant him one. He wrote a lot of songs. There's a Rolling Stones one I can't recall yet.
Hymns also do things like rhyme behind with wind. They take a lot of liberties to my mind, again it used to bug me as a kid. Though I always liked "There is a green hill far away without a city wall..."

Cheers,
John
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Old 02-17-2018, 01:06 PM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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I may have found an example of intentionally misplaced stress adding something to a song. "The Sounds of Silence" by Paul Simon was one of the first pop songs I ever heard, and it struck young me as immeasurably strange and otherworldly. It's hard to revive that impression, because the song's familiarity makes it feel unstrange and also because my familiarity with a wider variety of other melodies makes what this one does feel less unusual. But I wonder whether that initial strangeness might be intended, and whether it is enhanced by Simon's misplacing stresses. For example:

because a vision soft-LY creep-ING
left its seeds while i WAS sleep-ING

The misplaced stresses are frequent but not consistent, and I have no idea whether others experience the otherworldliness that I did when I first heard the song.
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Old 02-17-2018, 02:30 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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Doesn't he say "soft-lee-EE" and "wa-UZ"? I hear it as a use of melisma, a musical tool that often allows "unnatural" stresses to feel right in the lyrics.
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Old 02-17-2018, 03:08 PM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Thanks, RogerBob. It absolutely is melisma (a new word for me--thanks). (On "softly" and "was," though not "creeping" or "sleeping.") But doesn't that strengthen the mismatch of the two patterns? That those syllables get multiple notes each is among the reasons (along with the specific notes and their lengths and maybe other factors I'm too musically unsophisticated to note) that they get more stress than the syllables around them, contradicting the stress pattern of the words.

Or are you saying that to your ear the melisma makes the stress pattern of the music match that of the words?

I suppose the melisma makes the mismatch less noticeable, arguing against the likelihood that Simon wanted the song to sound strange. And I take it that for there isn't much strangeness to the sound.

Last edited by Max Goodman; 02-17-2018 at 03:14 PM.
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Old 02-17-2018, 04:43 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Those moments in the S & G song always sounded odd to me, and effective. Giving a syllable several beats is a powerful tool in song: Springsteen in "Wreck on the Highway" opens "Last night, I *was* out driving", with a couple of beats for was, which also sounds weird, almost archaic, and fits the mood. "Love" is a word singers often give multiple beats to, Van Morrison for instance. Harmony vocals - the gospel/soul tradition - have a lot of room to vary beat counts between lead and backing vocalists. Aretha in "Don't Play That Song" sings "It fills my heart with pain" and her echo goes "It hurts!"
Jackson Frank does a whole cadenza on "same" to close his song "Blues Run the Game", produced and later covered by S & G. It's quite lovely.

Cheers,
John
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