Word painting

Word painting (also known as tone painting or text painting) is the musical technique of having the music mimic the literal meaning of a song. For example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death.

Tone painting of words goes at least as far back as Gregorian chant. Little musical patterns are musical words that express not only emotive ideas such as joy but theological meanings as well in the Gregorian. For instance, the pattern FA-MI-SOL-LA signifies the humiliation and death of Christ and His resurrection into glory. FA-MI signifies deprecation, while SOL is the note of the resurrection, and LA is above the resurrection, His heavenly glory ("surrexit Jesus"). Such musical words are placed on words from the Biblical Latin text; for instance when FA-MI-SOL-LA is placed on "et libera" (e.g. introit for Sexagesima Sunday) it signifies that Christ liberates us from sin through His death and resurrection.

Composers also experimented with word painting in Italian madrigals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Word painting flourished well into the Baroque music period. One well known example occurs in Handel's "Messiah", where a tenor aria contains Handel's setting of the text:

:"Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain." (Isaiah 40:4)

In Handel's melody, the word "valley" ends on a low note, "exalted" is a rising figure; "mountain" forms a peak in the melody, and "hill" a smaller one, while "low" is another low note. "Crooked" is sung to a rapid figure of four different notes, while "straight" is sung on a single note, and in "the rough places plain," "the rough places" is sung over short, separate notes whereas the final word "plain" is extended over several measures in a series of long notes. This can be seen in the following example:



A modern example of word painting from the late 20th century occurs in the song "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. During the chorus, Brooks sings the word "low" on a low note. Similarly, on The Who's album "Tommy", the song "Smash the Mirror" contains the line

:"Can you hear me? Or do I surmise":"That you feel me? Can you feel my temper":"Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise...."

Each repetition of 'rise' is a half-step higher than the last, making this a clear example of word-painting.

Justin Timberlake's song "What goes around" is another popular example of text painting. The lyrics

:"What goes around, goes around, goes around":"Comes all the way back around"

descend an octave and then return back to the upper octave.

In the chorus of Up Where We Belong, the melody rises during the words "Love lift us up where we belong."

On occasion, a composer may employ the opposite technique for a humorous effect. In the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, Mary Rodgers has the lead character, Princess Winnifred, belt a brash show tune about her shyness called "Shy".

ources

*M. Clement Morin and Robert M. Fowells, "Gregorian Musical Words", in "Choral essays: A Tribute to Roger Wagner", edited by Williams Wells Belan, San Carlos (CA): Thomas House Publications, 1993
* Sadie, Stanley. "Word Painting". Carter, Tim. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Second edition, vol. 27.
* How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Part 1, Disc 6, Robert Greenberg, San Francisco Conservatory of Music

ee also

* mickey mousing
* Musica Reservata


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Word painting — Word Word, n. [AS. word; akin to OFries. & OS. word, D. woord, G. wort, Icel. or[eth], Sw. & Dan. ord, Goth. wa[ u]rd, OPruss. wirds, Lith. vardas a name, L. verbum a word; or perhaps to Gr. rh twr an orator. Cf. {Verb}.] [1913 Webster] 1. The… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • word painting — word painter. 1. an effective verbal description. 2. See tone painting. [1865 70] * * * word painting, 1. the art of describing or portraying in words; graphic, vivid, or colorful description. 2. the art of expressing musically the thoughts… …   Useful english dictionary

  • word-painting — noun a graphic or vivid verbal description too often the narrative was interrupted by long word pictures the author gives a depressing picture of life in Poland the pamphlet contained brief characterizations of famous Vermonters • Syn: ↑word… …   Useful english dictionary

  • word painting — Synonyms and related words: Vorstellung, cameo, catalog, cataloging, character, character sketch, characterization, concept, conception, conceptualization, delineation, depiction, description, details, eidetic image, envisaging, envisioning,… …   Moby Thesaurus

  • word painting — word painter. 1. an effective verbal description. 2. See tone painting. [1865 70] * * * …   Universalium

  • word painting — n. full and vivid description of an object by words only; effective description expressed in words …   English contemporary dictionary

  • word-painting — /ˈwɜd peɪntɪŋ/ (say werd paynting) noun the art or practice of verbal description …   Australian English dictionary

  • Word — Word, n. [AS. word; akin to OFries. & OS. word, D. woord, G. wort, Icel. or[eth], Sw. & Dan. ord, Goth. wa[ u]rd, OPruss. wirds, Lith. vardas a name, L. verbum a word; or perhaps to Gr. rh twr an orator. Cf. {Verb}.] [1913 Webster] 1. The spoken… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Word blindness — Word Word, n. [AS. word; akin to OFries. & OS. word, D. woord, G. wort, Icel. or[eth], Sw. & Dan. ord, Goth. wa[ u]rd, OPruss. wirds, Lith. vardas a name, L. verbum a word; or perhaps to Gr. rh twr an orator. Cf. {Verb}.] [1913 Webster] 1. The… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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