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Have you ever noticed that some songwriters have a gift for lyrics that are not only meaningful, but also sound good?  Most of us are aware of devices like alliteration and rhyme, which have to do with the way words sound next to each other.  But since I’ve become enamored of phonology, I’ve started to notice that the very best lyricists actually employ a lot of different techniques that I wasn’t really aware of before.  It’s possible that some of this is subconscious; I’m not sure all good lyricists are also linguistics geeks.  But it’s interesting to analyze.  So…I thought I’d analyze a song for you today!  Music and linguistics, two of the best things on earth, right? 🙂

The song I chose is by Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, a solo project of the lead singer and lyricist of the (incomparable, flawless) Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip. [Side note: preliminary results of a social experiment I have been conducting reveal that the sentence “I LOVE THE TRAGICALLY HIP” is a fail-proof way to make best friends with any Canadian.]  I chose this song because the very first time I heard it, I went WOW and insisted on listening to it fifteen more times.  It is just so, so brilliant lyrically (and it’s a darn fine tune as well.)

First, a very brief lesson in phonology:

  • A pair of slashes is what linguists use to show a distinct sound, or phoneme, in a language.  Spelling doesn’t necessarily correspond to phonetic notation; for example, in English, the letters ph and f would both look like this in notation: /f/.
  • Phonemes are classified by how they are produced when spoken.  There are two ways to classify consonant phonemes this way: by point of articulation (which parts of your vocal apparatus you are using) and manner of articulation (how you’re using those parts to make a sound).  Some possible points of articulation are your lips, your tongue, your palate, your teeth, and that ridge just behind your teeth, known as your alveolar ridge.
  • A fricative is, roughly, a sound you make with friction, by blocking most of the flow of air from your lungs but then letting some sound escape.  In English, an example of a fricative is /s/; try saying “ssssss” and notice how you’re blocking most of the air with your tongue and your gumline, and how the sound is created by the friction there.
  • A stop (also known as a plosive) is just what it sounds like; it makes a distinct sound by stopping the sound altogether.  Try saying the English phoneme /t/.  Notice how your tongue is in the exact same place as it was when you said /s/, but instead of letting a little air through, you stop it completely?
  • Another category of sounds are the nasals.  Nasals are formed by making the sound go through your nasal cavity (see how descriptive these terms are?) I once learned this handy tip for telling if a consonant is a nasal: start saying the consonant – for example, English /n/, so just start saying “nnnnnnnn” – and then pinch your nose shut.  If pinching your nose shut stops the sound completely, you’ve got a nasal!  (Try the same thing with “sssss” and see how it doesn’t affect non-nasals).

Got all that?

The phonemes that are important in this song are:
/f/ and /v/ – the labiodental (i.e. put your top teeth on top of your lower lip) fricatives
/m/ – the bilabial (i.e. put both lips together) nasal
/b/ – a bilabial stop

Now!  Let’s listen to some good music.

Click on the album cover below to open a music player in a new window.  The player is from the band’s official website, and streams the entire album.  The song I want to talk about is the very first one, which is called “East Wind.”  If I might make a suggestion, listen to the song just once to enjoy it, then listen again and read some of the things I noticed about it.

There are two (linguistic) highlights of this song for me.

First of all, there is the very first line from the first verse:

Hello again my friend, I’ve come to see you again.

Here is the line with a bit of phonetic notation:

Hello again /m/y /f/riend, I’/v/ co/m/ to see you again.

/m/, /f/, and /v/, those sounds that you make with your lips, I think are very comforting sounds.  Like when someone makes you some delicious food and you go “mmmm.”  And when you have occasion to say words like “life” and “love”.  All of that is evoked in this line that he’s saying to his friend.

But even more than that, and here is where I got really excited when I heard this song: this line is a perfect phonological palindrome, revolving around the word “friend.”  Do you see how on either side of the /d/ in that word, there are those labiodentals, and on either side of those, a pair of /m/s, each in perfect symmetry to one another?  That symmetry is reflected in the repetition of the word “again” at the beginning and end of the line, and also in the notes of the melody, which make a perfect arc down and then back up again.  So in this line about the symmetry of going and returning, turning on the presence of a friend, we hear that same symmetry melodically, semantically, and phonologically.

The other really clever thing about this song is in the refrain:

It doesn’t go around you, it goes through you.

It doesn’t go around you, it goes right through.

Maybe I should clarify that what I think is really clever is what is not in those lines, specifically the word “blow.”

Bilabial stops, /b/ and /p/, are common in comic book fight scenes (“Pow!”  “Bam!”) or when people are trying to vocalize loud noises (“Pop!” “Pyoopyoopyoo!” “Kablooey!”) In other words, they’re pretty jarring sounds, and they’re pretty distinctly articulated – you can actually see when a person is saying a bilabial, unlike many other sounds.  What could be more un-wind-like than a jarring, distinct sound that literally blocks airflow?  And yet the verb to describe what wind does is “blow,” so of course most poets and songwriters will say just that.  But Downie abandons this word entirely, and chooses a different verb that makes an entirely different sound.  Notice the effect this has: instead of ever stopping, the sound keeps flowing unimpeded, just like the lazy wind he’s describing.

In other words, what he’s done is choose words that not only say what they mean, but sound like what they mean.

How genius is that?