Sonic Patterns

by Stephen Rodgers

My computer skills, alas, are far more primitive than those of my collaborators Kris, Jordan, and David. This is partly why I am so excited to be part of this project: so that I can learn something from them! This is also why my first blog post will be decidedly less technical than theirs. I approach this project primarily from a music-analytical point of view, with a set of questions that I think corpus analysis can help us to answer.

How do composers respond to the sounds of words when they set those words to music? And how do listeners respond to the conjoining of these sound worlds when they hear songs? What can we learn about the interaction of text and music if we pay as much attention to how words sound as to what they mean?

I ask these questions as a music theorist and also as a singer. Singers are trained to be sensitive to the sounds of words—they take diction classes, they think about how to pronounce and emphasize vowels and consonants, they see language as something physical as well as semantic. Generally speaking, however, song analysts are more attentive to the meaning of language than they are to its materiality; experts at dealing with the sonic patterns of music, they are less accustomed to applying this level of scrutiny to the sonic patterns of language.

In my own work on art song, I have tried to enhance my skills at analyzing these linguistic patterns. (My most recent effort is an article called “The Fourth Dimension of a Song,” which appears in the latest issue of Music Theory Spectrum.) Improving my poetic “aural skills” has required a lot of work, but it has paid off.

It has also required a lot of hunting and pecking—flipping through scores, singing and playing through songs, listening for those striking moments where a composer seems to be emphasizing or exaggerating or transforming the “music” of poetry.

The benefits or a large corpus-based endeavor like The Lieder Project is that it will allow me and my colleagues to find those moments with greater ease, discovering patterns that we might never have imagined otherwise. My hope is that it might allow others to do the same, so that they can pursue their own questions about how speech sounds and musical sounds relate.