How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 2)

This blog post is #2 in the series ‘How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves’. Here you can read the previous post.

Today we will have a look at the first tool to help you create a concrete structure for your interpretation work:

Define WHAT the song is about

Ideally, this definition would consist of one sentence: a headline that sums up the story (or the drama in the song).

Think about how you would explain someone what the song is about. Or, as one of the teachers I worked with said, think of having to defend your song to the producer who wants to cut it out of the show. You have to be very clear when you explain the essence of the song to the producer, so you can justify why this song should stay in the show.

Remembering vs knowing the lyrics

I would like to encourage all singers to go through their songs and read the lyrics, so you know what your songs are about. Knowing what the songs are about seems so obvious. After all, we have to learn and know lyrics by heart all the time.

But have you ever thought about this: there is a difference between remembering the lyrics and knowing the lyrics.

  • Remembering the lyrics means remembering the words and sentences.
  • Knowing the lyrics means knowing the story.
  • Knowing the lyrics helps you relate the story to your own experiences, feelings, memories, images, and so on.
  • Knowing the lyrics is essential for song interpretation.

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Photo credit: Dyanna Hyde via Photopin

Some time back, I was rehearsing together with pianist Thomas Böttcher preparing our duo repertoire. One of the songs, ‘Take It With Me’ by Tom Waits, is a song I have been singing quite often. I knew the lyrics by heart, and in general, I thought I ‘knew’ the song pretty well. However, one part of the song somehow didn’t make sense to us. We felt unsatisfied about that part. First, we tried to approach the ‘problem’ from a musical (or ‘intellectual’) point of view: let’s phrase the sentence with this rhythm, let’s put the emphasis here, let’s do that part a bit louder, and so on. That didn’t really help. When Thomas asked me to read the lyrics of that part out loud, it struck me: until then I had been singing the lyrics of that part, but not really knowing them.

We need to know the lyrics so that we can relate to the story. It is not always necessary to have experienced everything yourself. You can relate to stories in many ways. The important thing is that you can relate to them, otherwise you are just singing words.

So, go through your lyrics, folks. And know them.

Knowing the lyrics can save you from your nerves

When you know the lyrics, you are singing a story: one sentence leads to another, it is all connected. You are always thinking about the next image.

When you have a clear image of the story, it helps you remember the lyrics better.

If forgetting the lyrics makes you feel nervous, there is only one thing you can do: learn them! There are no excuses. “I am bad with lyrics” is just an excuse for “I will not take the time to learn the lyrics and know them”.

It is your own responsibility as a singer to know the lyrics. Nobody will do the work for you.

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Photo credit: Ildalina via Photopin

Headline

Let’s get back to creating your headline to sum up the drama in the song.

I’ll use one of the singers I worked with last week as an example. She was working on the song ‘Help Me‘ by Joni Mitchell. Please read the previous blog post in this series, and remember song interpretation is not the same as song analysis. The singer I worked with made up a rather long headline, of two sentences:

It’s about feeling butterflies in your stomach, completely falling for someone, it’s wonderful and scary at the same time. You wanna go for that person completely, but at the same time you want to be free, committing yourself to someone feels scary.

We could for example sum it up to: “This song is about a crazy romance.”

As you can see, the 2-sentence “headline” is full of words that can be turned into actions. For example: feeling butterflies, falling for, feeling scared, etc). These action words are important and useful tools for our interpretation. We will talk about that in one of the upcoming posts in this series.

In tomorrow’s post we will start creating characters.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

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2 thoughts on “How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 2)

  1. Pingback: How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 3) | Complete Vocal Coach

  2. Pingback: How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 4) | Complete Vocal Coach

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