Home » Intro to Music » Music 1A: About Word Painting

Music 1A: About Word Painting

It isn’t unusual for folks to be a bit confused about word painting and how it works, so here are a few pointers:

  1. It is the use of specific music techniques to suggest or reinforce the meaning of specific words in the text of a song.
  2. The term only applies to music with words — in other words, “songs” of various types. (Without words there can be no word painting!)
  3. It is not a general thing like “the music sounded emotional when the singer was emotional.” Music can and does evoke emotional responses, but that is a different and much more general thing than word painting.

Your text supplies some excellent examples of how word painting operates. Since we have been looking at the example from Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, that is a good place to start.

  • Words referring to things that are above us may be sung on high notes — stelle (or “stars”), sole (or “sun) for example. A word for a thing that is below us, such as abissi (or “abysses”) is sung on a low note.
  • There is a wonderful example near the end where Orfeo says farewell to the earth (low pitches), the sky (higher pitches), and the sun (highest pitches).

It isn’t just about pitch. You read about and heard other examples: When the text referred to people doing something “two by two,” the music had two parts. If the words refer to someone running, the tempo or rhythm might speed up, and so forth.


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