Text and Music

As a person who deals with “vocal music” most of the time, I have always found this genre of music so special and fascinating. I’ve always asked myself, what is it that separates making vocal music, whether as a singer or pianist or opera orchestra, to making “absolute music” such as instrumental sonata, concerto, or solo piece for that matter?

The answer is quite simple – the text. What is so fascinating about vocal music is not only that the music is amazing, it is that the music is written based on the meaning of the text. In the standard repertoire of vocal music, we have the main art songs of German lieder, French chanson and mélodies, Italian art songs, English and American art songs; and of course operas. All these music are written based on the understanding of text, be it a poem or play.

When preparing a song for example, it is crucial to know the meaning of text (which often is not in a language we know) before the music. The comprehension of words before music gives the musician a fundamental understanding and mapping when studying the musical notations. For instance, we wouldn’t understand why Schumann writes consistent chords with downbeat accents without knowing the meaning of the poem “Ich grolle nicht”; and why Schubert opens the song in repeated fast octaves in triplets without knowing the background of the poem “Erlkönig”; and why “Cortigiani” from “Rigoletto” is preceded by dramatic diminished 7ths motifs without knowing the context of the whole opera.

The implication then follows, that when preparing a piece of vocal music, text is the fundamental understanding that a musician needs to acquire before learning the music. This applies to both singer and the pianist (for a song for voice and piano). This also puts a burden to the singer, who essentially sings the text, to convey the text as well as possible when performing a song – of course, unless you are performing a vocalise. This also means that the ability of doing correct diction is as important as the technique of singing itself. Only when text is done properly did its meaning be understood in the music.

It is rightly said that vocal music is essentially a combination of text and music, and this is exactly why it is so exciting to be a pianist to collaborate with singers to involve in the process of making vocal music. The joy of the successful integration of the human voice, the text, the piano sound and the variety of colours music has is beyond what words can explain.

© Sept 2016 Bernard Tan, All Rights Reserved

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