Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rhyme vs Story

Rhyming is an important part of modern songs, and effective rhyming can make the difference between a good and a bad impro song. I’ve been listening to lots of recordings of impro songs, and trying to work out what it is about some of them that I like. I think I’m getting there.

I can’t really write about techniques on how to build rhymes; putting that stuff together isn’t my forte. (Look over at the back at the theatre – that’s me, nestled snugly behind the piano in my little non-verbal cocoon.) But I can write about the stuff I like to see, the rhymes and song construction that resonate with me as a listener.

Probably my biggest wish in a song is that a singer stays true to the story, and doesn’t detour away from it.

Story first! Avoid detours.

In any song, you have to maintain an economy of language, verbalising your thought so it matches the rhythm and cadence of the song. There isn’t much room to stray from the subject of the song. For some reason, an idea expressed in song seems to get around people’s scepticism or defenses and sneak straight in to their hearts. If you maintain focus on the subject of the song, you’ll drive it home and get the audience on board.

It bugs me when people move away from the point of their song just so they can set up an elaborate rhyme – there might be a word they really want to end a verse with, and they find something, anything, that matches it, but to use that word effectively they have to detour for a while to set it up.

Here’s a contrived example, with a boy singing about a girl named Janet. (Please forgive my dodgy lyrics. Sondheim, watch out.)

When she laughs
We laugh together
I know our love
Will last forever

Just like an alien
Living on another planet
I’m in love with Janet

If you’ve set up a song with a certain emotional feel (cheesy love song), pulling out of it to use an incongruent lyric (Aliens?!? Wha?!) breaks the hypnosis for the audience. It’s a “Hey, that doesn’t belong there. Wait! They’re MAKING IT UP!” moment.


I think it’s easier to spot a forced lyric when people are trying to rhyme with multi-syllable words. You probably have fewer choices for that perfect rhyme, and you might have to travel further from the story to fit it in. My advice would be – instead of hunting for a suitable matching multi-syllable word, don’t worry about it! You want to leave the listener with a sense that there was a rhyme in there, but it doesn’t have to be an exact match.

Here’s a real-world example of the right way to do it, from ImproMafia’s recent production Worst Side Story. The Hoity Toity gang and their leader Salad Fork (Amy Currie) use every dirty trick in the book to try and raise the level of dining sophistication in their city, including breaking in to establishments and improving their table settings.

In this fast food restaurant
Everyone was damned
Until we came in here
Now their napkins are monogrammed

I thought that was a lovely rhyme. I’m assuming the goal was to get to "monogrammed", and the trick was to find a rhyme to set it up. "Damned" in context worked a treat; it fit the story, and rhymed nicely. Trying to shoehorn in a three-syllable word would have been tough.

You’ll be hearing more from Worst Side Story in upcoming posts.

The wrap-up

I guess, for me, people don’t score bonus points for a rhyme unless it was completely natural, fitting the music, the rhythm, and the story, and heck it just happened to rhyme. Now, if you can string a bunch of those together, I’m pretty impressed.

Playing The Piano Is Fun

This week’s example comes from some of my ImproMafia friends on-stage at the Australian Theatresports Nationals in 2009. Big thanks to Jon Williams, Rebecca De Unamuno, and the folks from Impro Australia for letting me feature it. (Man, I would love to play at this show. An audience of over a thousand impro fans? 20 or so of the best players in the country? How good would that be?!)

In the scene, Natalie Bochenski plays a little girl trying to win back the love of her parents and restore her family unit. The scene was a technical challenge, taking inspiration from a sting by their musician, the talented Penny Biggins. During the scene, after Tom Dunstan (the father) leaves, David Massingham (the mother. Mother-ish, anyway.) encourages her to sing a song to win her dad back. Vamp from Penny, and off Natalie goes.

Natalie’s song was short and sharp, and very tight. The lyrics are great – they’re simple, they are right on the story, and they stay very true to her character.

Playing the piano is fun
Everyone can do it – yes everyone!
We all join in and play together
Then Daddy will come home forever

Yes playing the piano is fun
You’ve got to play it nice and loud
When Daddy comes home, finally
I want him to be proud of me

Even though the lyrics are simple, the rhyming is not – Natalie strings together some pretty complex stuff: fun/everyone, together/forever, loud/proud, finally/proud of me. There were no detours to fit in those rhymes – everything had a place in her story. That finally/proud of me example is especially good; instead of hunting for a three-syllable word to rhyme, three one-syllable words dropped in the same cadence works perfectly.

I have to say that rhyming loud with proud, and rhyming finally with proud of me, at the same time, and absolutely nailing the story, is like hitting two triple word scores in Scrabble. Nice work. Sure wish I could do that.

Photo by Shannon K

1 comment:

Girl Clumsy said...

That song actually helped me in a lot of ways.

Before doing that show, I'd been suffering a crisis of confidence with my singing. Pulling off that little solo successfully, and receiving a lot of great feedback from it (and audience applause) was an excellent boost.

I felt a lot stronger then for the rest of 2009 in how I tackled my singing, and I made deliberate efforts to improve how I used lyrics. For that reason, I've found doing serenades at our Albion show particularly handy - forcing me to think and create some good lines and rhymes. The more you practice, the quicker you get at doing it. I hope to translate that speed across to other impro song forms (ones where you don't have as many offers as a serenade).

As always happens, there are other things to knock your confidences with impro singing, and that's certainly happened to me. But it was really nice to see that clip again - I had in fact forgotten most of the lyrics. Thanks for your kind words.

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