An Exercise in Interpretation

In this essay, I take a very good song and try to make it bad. Then I take a "bad" song and make it good.

From Good to Bad: The Chorus from Beethoven's 9th symphony

The notes from first three measures of the first line are:

3rd 3rd 4th 5th | 5th 4th 3rd 2nd | 1st 1st 2nd 3rd |

As written, you might expect the emphasis to fall on the first note of each measure, with maybe a secondary emphasis on the third note. (Think "Old McDonald".) But in fact that doesn't work. So, to completely ruin Beethoven's song, sing this part with an emphasis on the first beat of every measure.

What sounds good? A pretty good pattern is to treat the 4th note like it is a pickup to the next measure. The actual pattern of emphasis is difficult to describe physically, but we are grouping the music as

3rd 3rd 4th 5th | 5th 4th 3rd 2nd | 1st 1st 2nd 3rd | and so on

I think an even better interpretation is to blend the two, letting the pickup note interpretation dominate. In other words, make the musical grouping ambiguous but lean to the pickup interpretation.

Okay. This song has an AABA pattern. That takes us to through the first two A's. As near as I can tell, the B line of the song actually should be song with the emphasis on the first beat. To ruin this section, I choose an emphasis on the pickup note, which is to say, the fourth beat of each measure.

To summarize so far, there is nothing right or wrong about emphazing the first note -- somethimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Same for emphasizing the pickup note. As far as I can tell, there is no virtue is in variation just for the sake of variation. Instead, for some mysterious reason, the first part sounds better one way and the second part sounds better the other way. (Perhaps it is a coincidence, but in both interpretations, the emphasis falls on the first note of a pair of repeating notes.

Of course, if all this is correct, that means that for the final line, the singer/musician must stop empasizing the first beat of the measure and return to emphasizing the pickup note. Is this transition difficult? Not the way Beethoven wrote the music. The first note of the last line starts a beat early, which is to say, where the pickup note would be. So the emphasis naturally falls on the pickup position.

From Bad to Good

One of the worst songs I can imagine is "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" as sung by Tiny Tim. The words to the last verse are

And if I kiss you
In the garden
In the moonlight
Will you marry me?
And tiptoe
through the tulips
with me.

As sung by Tiny Tim, "And if I" are all pickup notes -- the first heavy beat falls on "kiss", and the next two are on "gar" and "moon". Therefore, it is natural to put less emphasis on the following beat -- "you", "den", and "light".

To sing this in a lovely way, you would do everything different from Tiny Time. You wouldn't use a nasal voice. You would sing it slow, not fast. But finally, you have to change the emphasis -- put equal emphasis on "you", "den", and "light". Then it sounds good. I think it also works well to slowly increase the volume -- put a step increase in volume beginning with "you", a second step increase occurring on "den", and a third step increase occurring on "light".

(For an over-the-top interpretation, change the note of "light" to the dominant, come in a beat early on "will", and then sustain "will". When you get to it, there is a advanced drop on "ry" (in marry) to the pitch of "me".)