Writers: Why Are Singers Putting The Wrong emPHAsis On The Wrong sylLAbles?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Mike Myers "View From The Top" character can teach songwriters something Mike Myers’ “View From The Top” character can teach songwriters something

When singers put “the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble” (to quote Mike Myers in View From The Top) it is often either because songwriters have put an odd combination of words and syllables together, or because the melody is forcing singers to make the error.

Before we move on, you may want to scan our “Modern Hymns” page for a basic overview of hymn meter, and terms like “iambic” and “trochaic.” But for a snapshot:

Iamb: a unit (called “one metric foot”) of two syllables, where the emphasis is on the second syllable.

Trochee: a unit of two syllables with the emphasis on the first syllable.

Look at:

And now I know heaven is mine

This line combines iambs and trochees in a way that singers, if presented with a melody written for iambic lines, will often sing as:

And NOW i KNOW heavEN is MINE

Try it yourself: sing the above line using the melody of the first line in the standard American tune for Amazing Grace (a tune called New Britain). You see? But correct pronunciation dictates:

And NOW i KNOW HEAven is MINE

The singer often gets the blame but look at the other suspects:

  1. The lyricist
  2. The composer

Of course today these are often one in the same person, although in previous centuries of church music, not only were the hymn text writer and the tune composer usually two different people, they often didn’t know each other. Sometimes they were separated by many miles or decades.

You can write hymn texts using lots of different meters, most of which we’ll discuss in future posts at My Song In The Night. Today let’s look at Common Meter (so named because its the most common): Alternate lines of 8 and 6 syllables. Most Common Meter hymns are iambic, meaning the pattern is:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM da DUM
The Blessing And The Curse Of Metrical Variation

But study almost any common meter hymn and you’ll see variations in this pattern. By mistake? Not if the hymn is a good one. To quote Gracia Grindal:

“… form is there so that the poet can depart from it. While almost anybody can write poetry which is endlessly regular, it takes the ear of a poet to hear when the line should be varied. The hymn writer has an additional problem, however …. If you change the metrical feet in one stanza, the change must be repeated in all the rest of the stanzas or something will sound wrong.”

So metrical variation can make a hymn better by forcing it from banal regularity, just as a good slant rhyme can improve a song chalk-full of rhymes that are perfect in sound but have become dull and predictable in order to achieve it (do we really need any more “love/dove” rhymes in congregational music?)¬†But as Grindal notes, your poetic meter must remain consistent from verse to verse.

If it does, and yet the singer places the wrong¬†emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble, then the problem might be with the music. And here is the most important point for all of you musicians and tunesmiths who write contemporary melodies for old hymns:Know And Understand What Hymn Meter You’re Working With. Know Where The Variations Are.

Take them into account when writing your music. If you find that variations are not consistent from verse to verse, you may have to alter the text (which of course you’re free to do if working with old hymns that aren’t copyrighted). But where variations are consistent, don’t compose a tune that barrells over them and forces the singer to pronounce “NOW i KNOW heavEN …”

“So great,” you’re thinking. “That just makes my job even harder.”

But this is a good thing. Say you want to write music for John Newton hymns. Say they’re all common meter. Its going to be hard for you to write music that doesn’t all sound the same. But if you pay attention to the variations that Newton has given you (among other things you’re paying attention to, of course, like the plot and theme of his hymn) you’ll be able to introduce musical variations as well. The overall metrical form will help make your song

SINGABLE
While the variations will help make your song

INTERESTING

And we all know this is the brass ring of congregational songwriting. Reach for it.

{ 2 comments }

Luke Wakefield July 8, 2012 at 1:49 am

That’s an excellent quote from Gracia Grindal. Where did you get it?

Bobby Gilles July 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

From a book she wrote called “Lessons In Hymnwriting.” It’s a small paperback that was put out by the Hymn Society of the U.S. and Canada. I’m not sure if it is still in print — I think I got my copy used from Amazon.

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