If you read Part 1 of this three-part series, you’ll also have listened to three different performances of the song “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
What you may have learned is that the way you interpret a song makes a difference in the way people will react to your performance. This means the way you choose to sing each phrase, emphasize key words, and bring in dynamics and emotional expression are important in making an emotional impact.
So, now I want to get into the Song Interpretation Exercise that I mentioned, which can help you think more intentionally about all of these elements.
Just a note: I’d like to think I’m brilliant, but I didn’t make this all up. A huge thanks goes to my former vocal teacher, Véronik Fournier (a.k.a. V), who passed on this incredibly helpful exercise to me.
First things first, choose a song you want to work on. Then download the Song Interpretation Exercise template here and get going with Step 1!
Step 1: Character, Objective, Moment Before, Win or Loss?
It may seem obvious that the “Character” in question – i.e. the person singing the song – is, well, you.
Technically, yes. However, is every story that you communicate through the songs you perform actually about you?
Maybe you are singing a song that you wrote completely based on your own personal life story. In that case, when you do the rest of this exercise, you’ll probably be drawing from the exact events and emotions you experienced.
However, sometimes we perform songs that aren’t based on our real life history. For example, one of my songwriting collaborations involved me having to sing about how my now-ex-lover just ran off to Havana. Well, I assure you that this has never happened – but I needed to convince everyone that it had!
So, I created a character in my mind who I could embody when singing “Havana”: a young woman who had gotten in deep with her Cuban lover and brought him back to her homeland. Yet, after a tumultuous time together, he packed up and left her high and dry.
Although creating this made-up character may have seemed a bit disingenuous at first, I was able to own the performance by drawing from my own, very real experiences of having felt the emotions of longing, bitterness and despair that are expressed in the song.
If you are performing at a show, you will, of course, be singing to your audience. But, again, let’s get to the heart of the story behind the song.
Who are you, as the character of the song, singing to? Are you singing to your cheating, ex-boyfriend who is now trying to win you back? A group of angry protestors who are demanding change? Your first, newborn baby?
There’s something kind of freeing about approaching a performance in this way. Rather than getting the jitters about singing to a sea of faces watching you from their seats, you are simply communicating a story that is really about, and being directed at, someone else.
What is your objective, or reason, for singing these words to the person (or people) you are singing to? Is it to assure them that they are going to make it through their challenging situation? To convince yourself to take the leap into a new romance?
Clarifying this for yourself from the outset can help in shaping the rest of the exercise.
What happened in the moment before you opened your mouth that triggered or prompted you to sing the very first line of your song?
For example, in “Havana”, I imagine that I (my character) is sitting alone in a bar, a half-empty whisky glass tilted in my hand – a recently-formed, daily routine. I stare at the cell phone on the table in front of me, then pick it up to call my runaway ex-lover. A pang of bitterness takes over and I drop the phone back on the table dismissively. This triggers the first line: “Yesterday is just another day, one more chance has slipped away.”
During the song intro, it can be helpful to play through the “Moment Before” scene in your head to help get you in right frame of mind before singing those very first words.
Win or Loss?
At the bottom of the sheet, you will see: “WIN OR LOSS?” You, as the character of the song, had an objective. Do you achieve it by the end of the song or not? Deciding this up front will shape how you decide to interpret the way your performance progresses.
Step 2: Lyrics
Fill in the song lyrics in the “Lyrics” column. Write out everything, including any sections, like the chorus, that are repeated.
Step 3: State of Being
What State of Being are you in while you are singing the song? What is the emotional experience you are undergoing? This is the heart of the exercise.
Maybe you’re performing a sad song. But – I would argue – it’s not enough to sing the entire song in a sad-sounding voice. If the story (lyric) has been well-crafted, there should be some progression (change) in events and therefore, a progression in the emotional experience that goes along with those events.
For example, perhaps the song is sad overall but also has moments of shock, then pain and humiliation that turn to anger and despair. Those nuances should be reflected in the way you perform.
For the State of Being column, write down what kind of emotional or mental state are you in at various parts of the song. The common descriptors that come to mind are: sad, happy, angry, joyful, confused, hurt, and so on. But you can get even more specific and/or unorthodox – e.g. nervous anticipation, defeated acceptance, smug assertiveness, brewing realization, drunken dismissiveness.
They don’t need to make grammatical sense – they just need to evoke something in you.
Your state of being or emotion may change every line or every third line, depending on how the lyric changes. There are no hard rules – this is your interpretation!
The Chorus: You Never Sing the Same Thing Twice!
My singing teacher V would always tell me that you never sing the same thing twice. Just because you repeat the exact same words of the Chorus a second, or maybe even third or fourth time, it doesn’t mean that every Chorus should be delivered in the exact same way.
Why? Well, because something happens between each Chorus (usually a verse or bridge) that then changes the intention behind the subsequent Chorus.
For example, let’s look at the song “Listen”, performed by Beyonce.
Chorus of “Listen”:
Listen, I am alone at a crossroads
I’m not at home, in my own home
And I’ve tried and tried
To say what’s on my mind
You should have known
Oh, now I’m done believing you
You don’t know what I’m feeling
I’m more than what you made of me
I followed the voice you gave to me
But now I gotta find my own
In Verse 1, Beyonce sings that “the sound from deep within” is “only beginning to find release”. She’s just starting to come out of this relationship where she felt her voice had been repressed. So, perhaps the first Chorus that follows is sung with a bit of timid conviction – she’s still trying to convince herself that it’s time to leave this relationship and take control of her own life.
In Verse 2, she then sings “I’m screaming out, and my dreams will be heard” – there’s a sense of frustration, perhaps even resentment that is now being expressed. Thus, the second Chorus that follows should reflect the new State of Being the singer is experiencing.
After the second Chorus, there is a Bridge. She sings: “I don’t know where I belong, but I’ll be moving on if you don’t.” At this point, it could be interpreted that the singer has found the strength to soar off on her own. Thus, the last (modified) Chorus may no longer be sung out of frustration, but rather, with assertion and confidence.
How The Song Interpretation Exercise Can Make Your Songwriting Better
I mentioned three benefits of the Song Interpretation Exercise in Part 1. One of those benefits is ensuring that there is lyrical progression in a new song you are writing.
Imagine this: You are working on the Song Interpretation Exercise for a new lyric you’ve written, and find yourself struggling to come up with emotional descriptors in Verse 2 that are different from the ones you wrote down for Verse 1. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any progression in the emotional experience of the song.
This might actually signal there being a lack of progression in the lyric itself. One of the common tendencies of new songwriters is to write about the same idea in Verse 2 of a song as the idea already expressed in Verse 1 – just in different words.
The Song Interpretation Exercise can be used to check whether you need to re-write part of your lyric so that there is both lyrical and emotional progression that moves the story along and keeps your listener interested.
Step 4: Image
When completing the Image column, approach it as though you are developing a music video for your song. Think of “scenes” to correspond with the various lines of the lyric, and write down a brief descriptor for each that will trigger the image you want in your head.
As with the State of Being column, you can decide how often or when the image changes to a new one, depending on what’s happening in the lyric.
The scenes or imagery don’t have to make logical sense. No one’s going to know what you’re actually imagining in your head while you perform the song.
After you complete this exercise, you’ll be looking off your Song Interpretation Exercise sheet and making the connections between the lyrics, State of Being descriptors, and images as your rehearse your song.
After it’s all become ingrained, you won’t need to refer to your sheet anymore. The images alone should trigger the corresponding emotions in the State of Being column. The lyrics themselves, at that point, should just come out like breathing.
The Hard Part Is Done!
If you got this far, congratulations! I know it was a lot of work and thought that went into the written part of this exercise, but hopefully you can already see how this may help to enhance the emotional impact of your performance. You may even feel a deeper connection with your song and sense of ownership, regardless of whether you wrote it or not.
The final article of the 3-part series Making an Emotional Impact as a Performer shows how to apply your work in Part 2 to your actual vocal performance. This is the fun part and where your artistic creativity really comes into play.
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