Musical transformation

19th March 2004 at 00:00
I started writing songs when I was 12, using my own adolescent poems of mooning and spooning and then composing the music. The first time I used someone else's poetry was when I had the audacity to transform Michael Rosen's words into songs. However, the process of composition is identical, whether it's my own poetry or someone else's. An understanding of this creative process can enhance any child's appreciation of music that they hear on the radio or on CD, in school or at home.


The first thing I address is the mood of the lyric: from this I devise how best to convey that mood with music. Is it happy? Sad? Anxious? Angry? Wistful? The message in the poem informs the tempo of the song and whether it should be set in a major or a minor key. Major keys historically have been used more for optimistic songs, while the minor keys are more commonly associated with darker feelings.

As in most artistic pursuits, however, rules are made to be broken and many exceptions to this exist.


Next I consider form. One must decide from the lyric which of many traditional musical forms would best express the song's intent.

The oldest song form is often referred to as folk: it has no chorus - only similarly structured verses telling a story.

Many songs follow the verserefrain form, as in Yellow Submarine by Lennon and McCartney. Here, the verse tells the story and the refrain reiterates why the writer is telling the story in the first place.

Ideally, the refrain is simple but catchy, containing "the hook", the most memorable and infectious part of the musical line. The hook usually contains the title, conveying the song's main message.

If the lyric is more prose-based, the song reflects that by being less structured and more through-composed. The following poem by Michael Rosen is a prime example:

My father came to England from another country

My father's mother came to England from another country

But my father's father stayed behind

So my Dad has no Dad here

And I never saw him at all. . .

In setting this poem to music, I was unconstrained by rhyme or meter, and created a more free-flowing type of song. However, I decided to devise an instrumental "hook" to establish a sense of unity, using a recurring wistful accordion line to underscore the sense of loss in the song.

Once the words and music have been finalised, I have more choices to make if I want to perform or record it: tempo, rhythm, meter, musical style, key, instrumentation, and numerous other variables, all influencing the final outcome.

The beauty of song lies in the marriage of words and music; a child's musical appreciation can be enhanced by examining this synergy. It may be instructive to use a poem that has been set to music, read the poem aloud, discuss how it might best be set to music, and then listen to the musical version. Or, working in reverse, take a familiar song and just speak the lyrics as a poem. The marvellous power of music to alter the effect of the words will become quickly apparent.

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