Table of Contents

Music and Words

Language and music have played important roles in culture ever since their emergence in prehistoric humans. The hyoid bone, which is responsible for speech, developed in humanoids more than 60,000 years ago, and the oldest known bone flute is 40,000 years old. Poetry, philosophy, and drama survive from ancient Western cultures, and both music iconography (images of musical instruments and music making) and music notation have also been discovered. The link between music and words is found in vocal music - songs, choral music, opera, musical theater, and so on. In this section, we will examine several genres of vocal music that have a particularly close relationship to language.

Medieval Chant

In Medieval Europe, a huge body of sacred music was written over the course of fifteen centuries using Christian holy writings as texts. This genre is known as chant or plainchant, and consists of pieces that are monophonic with Latin (and occasionally Greek) texts intended for use in religious observances. Not all of this music has survived, but a large collection was captured in an early form of music notation and still survives in medieval manuscripts. Because the words were considered holy by those who created and performed this music, the relationship between words and music in this body of works is particularly critical. Above all, the music was a vehicle to facilitate the communication of sacred words.

Gregorian Chant

The most wide-spread and prolific type of plainchant is known as Gregorian chant. In 800, Pope Leo III consolidated the power of the Roman Church with that of the Frankish kings by declaring Charlemagne (768–814) emperor and establishing what is now known as the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity was the dominant religion in most of Europe by the 8th century, and the Frankish kings had conquered most of Western Europe by the 9th century, making this empire a large and powerful one. In order to solidify their power and promote unity in the empire, Charlemagne and the Pope worked to codify the liturgy (religious observances) and standardize regional chant repertoires into a single unified practice: Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant is named after Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604) who, according to legend, learned the music from the Holy Spirit in the embodiment of a dove. However, Pope Gregory predates Charlemagne's standardization effort by 200 years, and there is no evidence from his own time that he was involved in composing or standardizing chant. Historians now believe that this story was generated as political propaganda to facilitate its adoption and promote unification in the newly established empire.

The Mass and Dies irae

Music played an important role in all aspects of church liturgy, but none more so than the Mass. The Mass began as a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper, and over time developed into a complex and sophisticated ritual. By the 11th century it consisted of 22 sections, only 4 of which did not include music. Sections whose text changed according to the church calendar are known as the Proper of the Mass, and the sections with fixed texts are known collectively as the Ordinary of the Mass.

The Mass for the Dead, or Requiem Mass, is performed at funereal services and in memory of the dead. In a Requiem Mass, sections of the Mass that are typically joyful are omitted or replaced, and since the 14th century, Dies irae ('Day of Wrath') is usually included. The text of Dies irae speaks of the wrath of God on the final judgment day, and its melody has appeared in many sacred and secular compositions since its emergence in the Middle Ages. It is often used to portray impending doom or to evoke the ideas of death and damnation. We will revisit Dies irae in later sections, so take the opportunity to become familiar with it now.

As you listen to the chant, notice that the rhythms are not rigid, but free and speechlike. The Medieval notation used to capture Gregorian chant indicates pitches, but does not indicate rhythms, so the rhythm of a chant is determined by the rhythm and emphasis of its text and the interpretation of the performers.

Requiem Mass, Sequence: Dies irae

Although many chant texts are biblical (often coming from the Psalms and the Gospels), the text of Dies irae is original and has been attributed to Thomas of Celano (d. ca. 1250). The poem is particularly long for its genre, consisting of 18 rhymed stanzas and a final unrhymed couplet that was added later by an anonymous author.

Musically, the formal pattern is very repetitive: AABBCC/AABBCC/AABBCDEF. There are internal phrases that reoccur as well: the second phrase of B is the same as the first phrase of A, and the second phrases of D and E are also identical. This amount of repeated material gives the long chant unity and coherence, and after so many iterations the melodies become quite familiar.

Musical Form Stanza Latin Text English Translation
A Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.
A day of wrath; that day,
it will dissolve the world into glowing ashes,
as attested by David together with the Sibyl.
A Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando iudex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus?
What trembling will there be,
when the Judge shall come
to examine everything in strict justice.
B Tuba mirum spargens sonum,
per sepulchra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.
The trumpet's wondrous call sounding abroad
in tombs throughout the world
shall drive everybody forward to the throne.
B Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurget creatura,
iudicanti responsura.
Death and nature shall stand amazed
when creation rises again
to give answer to its Judge.
C Liber scriptus proferetur
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus iudicetur.
A written book will be brought forth
in which everything is contained
from which the world shall be judged.
C Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet, apparebit;
nil inultum remanebit.
So when the Judge is seated,
whatever is hidden will be made known:
nothing shall go unpunished.
A Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix iustus sit securus?
What shall I, wretch, say at that time?
What advocate shall I entreat (to plead for me)
when scarcely the righteous shall be safe from damnation?
A Rex tremendae maiestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me, fons pietatis.
King of awesome majesty,
who to grants salvation to those that are to be saved,
save me, o fount of Piety.
B Recordare, Iesu pie,
quod sum causa tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.
Remember, dear Jesus,
that I am the reason for Thy journey (into this world):
do not cast me away on that day.
B Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.
Seeking me, Thou didst sit down weary,
Thou didst redeem me, suffering the death on the Cross:
let not such toil have been in vain.
C Iuste Iudex ultionis,
donum fac remissionis
ante diem rationis.
Just Judge of vengeance,
grant me the gift of pardon
before the day of reckoning.
C Ingemisco tamquam reus:
culpa rubet vultus meus:
supplicanti parce, Deus.
I groan like one condemned:
my face blushes for my sins:
spare a supplicant, o God.
A Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Thou who didst absolve Mary (Magdalen),
and heard the robber,
hast given me hope as well.
A Preces meae non sunt dignae:
sed tu bonus fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.
My prayers are not worthy:
but Thou, of Thy goodness, deal generously (with me),
that I burn not in the everlasting flame.
B Inter oves locum praesta,
et ab haedis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextra.
Give me a place among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me on Thy right hand.
B Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis:
voca me cum benedictis.
When the accursed have been confounded
and sentenced to acrid flames,
call me along with the blessed.
C Oro supplex et acclinis
cor contritum quasi cinis,
gere curam mei finis.
I prostrate myself, supplicating,
my heart in ashes, repentant;
take good care of my last moment!
D Lacrymosa dies illa
qua resurget ex favilla
That day will be one of weeping
on which shall rise again from the embers
E iudicantus homo reus:
huic ergo parce, Deus.
the guilty man, to be judged:
Therefore spare him, O God.
F Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

The abundance of formal repetition in Dies irae reveals a great deal about the relationship between words and music in this chant. Using the same music over and over again regardless of text indicates that the music was not designed to interpret or express specific words. For example, the word 'irae' ('wrath') is set to the same music as 'causa' ('cause'), 'redemisti' ('for thou has redeemed'), 'Mariam' ('Mary'), 'meae' ('my'), and 'haedis' ('goats'). If the music had been designed to guide interpretation or express the meaning of the text, surely 'goats' and 'wrath' would be set differently. Instead, the form and rhythm of the text guide the music more than the meaning of the words themselves.

In Gregorian chant, the music is completely subservient to the words, and its main purpose is to carry those words to a congregation, perhaps in a large, resonant church. Although chant is designed to be pleasing, in order to fulfill this role, chants must also be simple: monophonic, unaccompanied, easily sung and remembered.


With Gregorian chant we saw how music can be used functionally as a vessel for the transmission of words. In the Renaissance period, a secular (non-sacred) polyphonic genre developed that began setting poetry with an emphasis on expression: the madrigal.

Poems used for madrigals were usually love poems, satires, or allegories. Most madrigals are through-composed, so the form of the poem was of little importance to composers of these pieces. Vivid imagery and emotional content were the qualities that most intrigued madrigal composers because these features created expressive and interpretive opportunities for the music. The poems of Petrarch (1304-1374), a Medieval Italian poet and humanist, were considered ideal for madrigals because they were finely crafted and rich in these expressive opportunities.

Luca Marenzio (1553/4-1599), Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena

Italian Rhyming Pattern Italian Sonnet by Petrarch
Canzoniere, 310
English Translation
by William Dudley Foulke

Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena
e i fiori e l'erbe, sua dolce famiglia,
et garrir Progne et pianger Filomena,
et Primavera candida e vermiglia;

ridono i prati, e 'l ciel si rasserena,
Giove s'allegra di mirar sua figlia,
l'aria e l'acqua e la terra è d'amor piena,
ogni animal d'amar si riconsiglia.
Again with gladsome feet Zephyr returns
Mid grass and flowers, his goodly family
And Procne chatters, Philomela mourns,
While Spring comes forth in all her finery.

The meadows laugh; the skies are bright and fair,
And Aphrodite wins the smile of Jove,
While full of passion is the earth and air
And every creature turns his thoughts to love.

Ma per me, lasso, tornano i più gravi
sospiri che del cor profondo tragge
quella ch'al Ciel se ne portò le chiavi;

et cantar augelletti, e fiorir piagge,
e 'n belle donne oneste atti soavi
sono un deserto e fere aspre e selvagge.
For me, alas! these vernal days are shorn
Of all delight and laden with the sighs
Which from my heart's recesses she hath torn

Who bore its hopes and pangs to Paradise!
'Till birds and flowers and woman's graces mild
To me are but a desert, stern and wild.

The sonnet is divided into two parts with different rhyming schemes. Unfortunately, the English translation does not follow the same rhyme scheme as the original Italian, so you will need to refer to the Italian text to see these patterns. Traditionally, the first part of a sonnet will introduce a situation or problem and the second part will resolve the problem or respond to the situation. In this case, the bright happiness of spring portrayed in the first section contrasts sharply with the bitterness and pain of a man whose beloved has died.

The music portrays this contrast in several ways. The tempo is much slower in the second section, and rhythms that were jaunty and energetic in the first section give way to smooth and sustained patterns. The vocal ranges also tend to be lower in this section, implying low spirits and depression in contrast with the bright optimism and high pitches of the first section. Marenzio also uses suspensions and word painting to evoke the contrasting emotions of this poem.


A suspension is an elegant way of introducing dissonance into a piece of music, and was a favorite technique of madrigal composers. Suspensions follow specific formulas and consist of three parts: the preparation, the suspension itself, and the resolution. The preparation is consonant, the suspension is dissonant, and the resolution is consonant again. Suspensions are named according to the dissonant interval that creates the suspension and the consonant interval that resolves it. Therefore, a 9-8 suspension occurs when a 9th (which is dissonant) resolves to an octave (which is consonant).


Because these suspensions are driven by dissonance, they are used in music of this period to indicate tension and unease. Suspensions can even be linked together, one after another, which creates a sense of longing and gives the impression that resolution will never be achieved. In Petrarch's poem the speaker is distressed because his beloved is gone and will never return, which makes these gestures of anguish and yearning particularly well suited to its musical setting.

Word Painting

An important feature of any madrigal is word painting, and Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena is no exception. Word painting occurs when the music is designed to symbolically represent the ideas in the text. Word painting generally appears on words that express emotion ('weep', 'laugh', 'pity'), indicate motion or direction ('leap', 'cast down'), or represent time or number ('quickly', 'twice'). Often natural sounds, like birds chirping or a brook babbling, are imitated as well - a technique called onomatopoeia. In this madrigal, Marenzio uses word painting on 'garrir' ('chatters'), 'ridono' ('laugh'), 'profondo' ('profound'), 'Ciel' ('Heaven' or 'Paradise'), 'cantar' ('sing'), and others. Listen again to the recording and follow along with the examples of word painting in the chart below.

Luca Marenzio (1553/4-1599), Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena

Time Stamp Word Painting
0:23 Procne's chattering is portrayed by short, quick, descending scalar (scale-like) passages.
0:54 Laughing is depicted with even faster figures going both up and down, with particularly high pitches in the soprano.
2:05 On the Italian word for 'profound' ('profondo') all the voices descend, which is unusual for this style. In contrast, the following phrase leads to the word for 'Heaven' ('Ciel') and is filled with ascending figures and high notes.
2:26 The solemnness of this section is interrupted with the singing of little birds ('cantar augelletti'), which consists of light, fast, rhythms and paired imitation. Paired imitation occurs when a duet between two voices is imitated by two other voices, in this case emulating a 'conversation' between two groups of birds.

These musical gestures are symbols that support the meaning of Petrarch's poem. The same technique is used in later music, including popular songs. One example of this is "Smash the Mirror" from Tommy by The Who, which ascends chromatically (by half-step) on the lyric, "rise, rise, rise, rise..." The technique can also be used ironically, where the music portrays the opposite effect of the one that is implied by the lyrics. An example of this can be found in "Shy" from the musical Once Upon a Mattress by Mary Rodgers. The lyrics are about being timid and meek, but the music itself is showy and suited for a bold voice.

Monody and the Emergence of Opera

Following the Renaissance period in music history is the Baroque period. The term 'baroque' was originally pejorative, meaning 'deformed pearl', but has since come to stand for the period in music history that falls between the Renaissance and Classical periods. The Baroque period was the time of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and is also the period in which opera was established as an important and popular genre.


Monody, an important precursor of opera, is accompanied solo singing (not to be confused with the texture called monophony, which is simply unaccompanied melody). The Florentine Camarata, an influential group of philosophers and scholars of the late 1500s, came to believe that the most appropriate and emotionally potent way to express poetry through music was with a single line of melody, carefully crafted to to the rhythms and meaning of the text. They believed that this style avoided the confusion of madrigalian polyphony, and approximated more closely the speech inflections of a skilled actor or orator. This philosophy and the style of music that it engendered would soon become opera, music paired with drama, poetry, and stagecraft.

Early Opera

The Camarata drew their conclusions from examinations of ancient Greek and Roman drama and treatises, which reflected the general interest in classical antiquity in Florence at the time. It is no surprise, then, that many early operas treated Greek and Roman mythological subjects. One such opera, a setting of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice entitled L'Orfeo (1607), was written by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Monteverdi wrote only vocal music, and was particuarly attentive to the relationship between his music and the text. When a story or play is adapted for film we call this a screenplay and the author is a screenwriter. In the case of opera, the adaptation is a libretto and the author is a librettist. In the case of L'Orfeo, the librettist was Alessandro Striggio, who modeled the form of the libretto on Greek tragedy.

One important feature of early opera was the development of aria and recitative. Arias are lyrical pieces that pause the action and allow a single character to express their emotions. An aria is the operatic equivalent of a soliloquy in a play, and is accompanied by the full orchestra. Recitative, on the other hand, is designed to emulate speech by using free rhythms and melodies that approximate the pitches of normal speech. Since there is no speaking in opera, recitative is used in its place. Recitative in early opera is accompanied by only basso continuo - one instrument playing the bass line (often cello) and another filling in the harmonies (often harpsichord). Despite its apparent functionality, recitative can be beautiful and expressive, especially in the hands of a composer like Monteverdi.

According to Greek mythology, Orpheus was part god and able to move people's emotions with his music and poetry. In this story, his wife, Eurydice, dies from a snakebite, and Orpheus is so distraught that he goes to the underworld in an attempt to retrieve her by charming the god of the underworld, Hades, with his music. The recitative below is Orpheus's lament at the news of his wife's death.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Recitative: "Tu se' morta" from L'Orfeo (1607)

Original Italian English Translation
Tu sé morta, sé morta, mia vita,
ed io respiro; tu sé da me partita,
sé da me partita per mai più,
mai più non tornare, ed io rimango-
no, no, che se i versi alcuna cosa ponno,
n'andrò sicuro a' più profondi abissi,
e, intenerito il cor del re de l'ombre,
mecco trarrotti a riveder le stelle,
o se ciò negherammi empio destino,
rimarrò teco in compagnia di morte.
Addio terra, addio cielo, e sole, addio.
You are dead, are dead, my life,
And I breathe; you have left me,
You have left me forever,
Never to return, and I remain-
No, no, if my verses have any power,
I will go confidently to the deepest abysses,
And, having melted the heart of the king of shadows,
Will bring you back to see the stars again,
Or, if cruel fate denies me this,
I will remain with you in the company of death.
Farewell earth, farewell sky, and sun, farewell.

Dissonance is used prominently in this recitative to express Orpheus's pain. Monteverdi also uses word painting on 'morta' ('death'), 'più profondi abissi' ('the deepest abysses'), and 'riveder le stelle' ('see the stars again'). How does he use music to portray these words?


So far we have looked at three examples of music with a special relationship to words: Gregorian chant, madrigals, and early opera. All these examples are from the 17th century or prior, but that's not to say that there hasn't been a great deal of music since then that interacts with words in a unique and fundamental way. In fact, one of the most word-driven forms of all time was born in the 20th century: rap.


The origins of rap lie as far back as the origins of poetry, but rap as we know it emerged around 1980 as a sub-genre of hip-hop, which was influenced largely by the folk music of the African diaspora and African-American music including jazz, blues, funk, and gospel. Rap began when hip-hop disc jockeys (DJs) of the South Bronx in New York City decided that they needed to pick up the microphone to keep the attention of their audiences. They began speaking in time with the rhythms of the music and soon added rhymes and other wordplay. Thus the DJ became an MC, master of ceremonies. When rap first emerged it was less about word craft and more about entertainment. In the late '80s and early '90s rappers began to use more complex rhythms (known as flow), to create more sophisticated wordplay, and to treat social, political, and economic issues in their pieces. It was these innovations that define the genre as we know it today.


Rappers exploit a vast repertoire of techniques inherited from poetry and literature (rhyme, simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, assonance, oxymoron, onomatopoeia, imagery, irony, foreshadowing, and so on) and music (meter, rhythm, repetition, variation, contrast, chorus, and so on), and they add their own innovations in rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay in a way that has left its mark on the English language (look no farther than rappers' monikers for evidence of this). Chicago-born rapper Common writes, "All rap is poetry. That's not to say that all rap is poetic, though. Some rhymes just don't quite flow right; some are hard to listen to. But then again, just because it might not sound poetic to me doesn't mean it's not poetry."

One aspect of rap that cannot be ignored is its subversiveness, which sometimes manifests itself in crude, violent, or otherwise offensive lyrics. Eminem is one rapper who incites a great deal of controversy in this regard, while simultaneously earning global celebrity, financial success, and the respect of his peers for his skills as a lyricist. New York rapper 50 Cent has described Eminem as, "the best rapper," remarking, "You know how a person is made for something? Eminem is made for hip-hop."

One of the less controversial pieces by Eminem is "'Till I Collapse" featuring fellow rapper Nate Dogg from his 2002 Grammy-nominated album The Eminem Show. The track has never been released as a single, but has been very successful as an independent title, having been used in association with the promotion of sports teams and video games. The marching cadence sampled in the introduction ("Left, left, left, right, left...") evokes the military, and may have been chosen to suggest that soldiers represent the commitment and hard work advocated in the lyrics, but this theme is not revisited explicitly in Eminem's rap or elsewhere in the song.

In the lyrics below, some examples of poetic devices are noted. The list is not exhaustive, but shows how traditional techniques are applied in rap lyrics.

Eminem, "'Till I Collapse" from The Eminem Show

Poetic Devices Eminem, "'Till I Collapse"
internal rhyme, repetition 'Till I collapse I'm spilling these raps long as you feel 'em
'Till the day that I drop you'll never say that I'm not killin' 'em
'Cause when I am not, then I'ma stop pennin' 'em
end of line rhyme And I am not hip-hop and I'm just not Eminem
Subliminal thoughts, when I'ma stop sending them?
Women are caught in webs, spin 'em and hock venom
internal rhyme Adrenalin shots of penicillin could not get the illin' to stop
Amoxicillin's just not real enough
The criminal cop killin' hip-hop villain
internal rhyme A minimal swap to cop millions of Pac listeners
You're coming with me, feel it or not you're gonna fear it
Like I showed you the spirit of god lives in us
You hear it a lot, lyrics to shock
alliteration, paraphrase (of Snoop Dogg's '-izzle' usage) Is it a miracle or am I just product of pop fizzin' up?
For shizzle my wizzle, this is the plot, listen up
You bizzles forgot, Slizzle does not give a f***!

end of line rhyme Music is like magic, there's a certain feeling you get
When you real and you spit and people are feeling your s***
This is your moment, and every single minute you spend
Trying to hold on to it because you may never get it again
So while you're in it, try to get as much s*** as you can
And when your run is over just admit when it's at its end
end of line rhyme Because I'm at the end of my wits with half the s*** gets in
I got a list, here's the order of my list that it's in:
It goes Reggie, Jay-Z, 2Pac and Biggie
end of line rhyme, slant rhyme, repetition, assonance Andre from OutKast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas and then me
But in this industry I'm the cause of a lot of envy
So when I'm not put on this list, the s*** does not offend me
That's why you see me walking around like nothing's bothering me
Even though half you people got a f***in' problem with me
You hate it but you know respect you got to give me
The press's wet dream like Bobby and Whitney; Nate, hit me

end of line rhyme Soon as a verse starts, I eat at an MC's heart
What is he thinking? How not to go against me. Smart.
internal rhyme And it's absurd, how people hang on every word
assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme I'll probably never get the props I feel I ever deserve
But I'll never be served, my spot is forever reserved
end of line slant rhyme, full rhyme If I ever leave Earth, that would be the death of me first
Because in my heart of hearts I know nothing could ever be worse
That's why I'm clever when I put together every verse
internal slant rhyme My thoughts are sporadic, I act like I'm an addict
internal rhyme or slant rhyme on the same syllable in each line I rap like I'm addicted to smack like I'm Kim Mathers
But I don't want to go forth and back in constant battles
The fact is I would rather sit back and bomb some rappers
So this is like a full blown attack I'm launching at them
The track is on some battling raps who want some static?
Because I don't really think that the fact that I'm Slim matters
A plaque and platinum status is wack if I'm not the baddest, so...

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2022