Lyrically Speaking: Choosing Sounds for Reasons

How many times have you had to choose between two words that say what you want to say, and just picked one arbitrarily? Maybe one “felt a little better” or “sang a little better,” but you didn’t know why. Instinct can be a great ally, but it can also be a fickle friend. Informed instinct, instinct plus information, is always a better bet.

Saying exactly what you mean should always be your primary goal; never let technical considerations drive the bus. But when several options say what you mean, you might want a little information on your side. It could give you a reason to choose one option over the others. You might, for example, make your choice based on what the sounds do. A lyricist’s job, after all, at the most basic level, is to provide vowels and consonants— sounds—for the human voice to articulate.

Look at these lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach”:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand
Begin, and end, and then again begin…

See how intricately the sounds in the last line are linked to each other? The nasal n continues the line, creating a linking effect like a bagpipe drone sound. It glues all the other sounds to a central texture and tone. All the stressed syllables end in the nasal sound:

Beginand end, and then again begin

Now consider the vowels. They suggest a cycle. The three middle short-e vowels suggest continuous, smooth motion. The initial and final short-i’s make you want to start over again:

Gin end then gain gin

Remember the vowel triangle?

The short-e and short-i sit next to each other on the left leg – the frontal, or tongue vowels. Adjacent vowels on the triangle share a good deal of, in this case, tongue position and thus resonance. That’s why it feels so smooth. Say it and concentrate on your tongue position:

Begin, and endand then again begin

This continuous smooth motion works with meaning at least one way: like waves, it makes you want to keep starting over after you finish:

Begin and end, and then again begin and end, and then again begin…

Wanting a smooth line could well be a reason for choosing end over other words with the same meaning, eg, stop, pause, cease.

But this continuous motion of the sound could also work directly against what the line is trying to say. Look again:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand
Begin, and end, and then again begin…

The meaning of the last line is that the waves’ motion comes to a stop — a pause — before continuing. But the sounds do just the opposite! They keep going without any pause at all!

OK. Let’s try stop:

Begin, and stop, and then again begin

Look at the short-o’s position on the vowel triangle. It’s on the opposite leg, in the back (or lip) vowels. It certainly solves the smoothness issue. The voice-leading has indeed been broken. But perhaps too much – the p halts motion completely. Waves don’t. How about this:

Begin, and pause, and then again begin

The vowel in pause is on the other leg of the vowel triangle, again, a distance away from short-e, breaking the voice leading. Seems like a great choice.

I love how visual the vowel triangle is. You can see what’s distant and what’s adjacent.

How about cease?

Begin, and cease, and then again begin

Again, the voice leading is broken by long-e (the only pure long vowel on the vowel triangle. The other four are diphthongs), at the far end of the tongue vowels.

This example should give you insight into the process of selecting your effects. End, stop, pause and cease all mean about the same thing. Given that they mean the same thing, which word works better? Why?

Begin, and end, and then again begin
Begin, and stop, and then again begin
Begin, and pause, and then again begin
Begin, and cease, and then again begin

“Cease” and “pause” seem to be the strongest candidates. Given these two ways to say the same thing, which word works better? Why?

Right. “Cease” actually sounds like ocean waves splashing against the beach.

If you know the poem, you already know that I misquoted it. Here is the real thing:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand
Begin, and stop, and then again begin

Matthew Arnold probably didn’t start by saying, “I want a word that sounds like the ocean and breaks my voice leading expressively.” But the selection process led him there.

It’s a great use of the vowel triangle. You can voice-lead with contiguous sounds, begin/end, honest/love, and break it with non-adjacent sounds, begin/cease, honest feeling. All you have to do is look, listen, and then, choose accordingly.

Moral: If you put yourself in situations where you have several alternatives, your writing will get better, provided that you understand how to pick from among the options.

Reasons for choosing. Choosing for reasons. That’s why it pays to study and learn.

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