When setting text to music, a composer must choose what kind of relationship the words and music will have: will it be a close relationship where the music reflects every nuance of the text? Or will it be a more distant relationship where the music leaves the text free to “speak” for itself? These different approaches could be called the dramatic style, and the deadpan style of text setting, respectively.

In the dramatic style, the music serves to express, dramatize, or illustrate the content of the text. Every change in the text is reflected in the music. If the lyrics take a sudden turn from cheerful to melancholy, we must hear this transformation in the music: its pace might slow down, its harmony might shift from major to minor. Salient words receive musical emphasis and where possible, their meaning is depicted musically: a word like “fall” might take a descending melody, while “climb” might take a rising one.

In the deadpan style, the music serves as a neutral conduit or substrate for the text: it delivers the text to the listener without proposing a specific interpretation for each word or phrase. Where the music is catchy or otherwise attractive in itself, it functions like a gateway for appreciating the words, a point of entrance. It puts us in the mood, it binds our attention to the words, it gives us a pleasant way of spending time with them. But instead of illustrating the their meaning line-by-line, it leaves us to interpret them on our own.

In any style of text setting, the music should respect the basic rhythm of the text, and its mood should match text’s, but in what we’re calling the deadpan style here, this loose fit is considered sufficient: the music does not go further and dramatize every textual decision. Interpretive choices are made at the outset and are then left in place. The composer might write a somber tune to match a somber poem – establishing a loose fit in mood between the two – but the inner details of the tune are not closely correlated with the salient textual events.

A similar distinction exists in how a musician chooses to perform a song. In a dramatic style of interpretation, the singer would aim to express the emotional content of the text as clearly and specifically as possible, carrying the audience through each joy or sorrow to be found in its story. We would hear the singer in turn grow louder and more excited, or softer and more somber as the story itself changes. We would hear the singer emphasize the text’s most salient words and phrases, adjusting his or her vocal delivery to the semantic content, in turn seeming to whisper, sigh, or call out in joy as the text demands.

In a deadpan style of interpretation, the singer functions less like an actor and more like a neutral orator, clearly enunciating the text so that listener can then grapple with its content. In this style, the singer maintains a steady demeanor as the text goes through its ups and downs. If the text is generally bright and hopeful, the singer might choose a pace and timbre to match, but the vocal delivery would not modulate with each notable word or image.

Why am I writing about this distinction between dramatic and deadpan songwriting styles? Because I’ve so often been confused by it. I’ve tended to harbor the preconception that the dramatic style is somehow the more sophisticated or virtuous approach, and so I’ve often been surprised when I notice that a deadpan song – one which seems to contradict everything that I assume is good or important in songwriting – turns out to be just as compelling, if not more so, than a dramatic song. In thinking more closely about the distinction between these two styles, I’ve come to conclude that neither is better or worse: they are simply different options which can be pursued in their pure forms or creatively intermixed.

Perhaps the reason why the dramatic style seems virtuous is because many of the great examples of Western classical art song adhere to this style. We find its apotheosis in songs by Schubert. In a song like Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise, for example, the music first evokes the protagonist’s nostalgia at the sight of a beloved linden tree, and then it simulates the cold wind blowing in his face and dislodging his hat as he is forced to turn away from the tree and continue his journey. Schubert gives musical form to the emotional changes of his protagonist in uncanny and wonderful ways, and his songs bring more definition and specificity to Müller’s texts than a reader would find on the page. And as for lieder interpretation, the great baritone Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau rose to fame in part because of his dramatic genius, his demonstration that a performer of songs like Der Lindenbaum could be more than a singer, but an actor.

In my own experiences with studying voice, my teachers have often emphasized that dramatic conviction is the defining element of a good performance, more so than technical perfection. And I myself have often listened to a singer and thought “He’s got the music down, but the text isn’t coming through” – it’s a common criticism. If you take voice lessons or observe vocal master classes, you will notice how much time is dedicated to text expression. Entire sessions are spent considering how a singer can more vividly convey the meaning of a particular word or phrase. Teachers and critics will tell you that a good singer is one who truly expresses the words, and that when the words are repeated, they should never be delivered the same way. Every repetition is an opportunity for new dramatic shading to be explored, a new meaning to be revealed. And so there are lots of cues suggesting that the greatest songwriters and performers are those who have mastered the dramatic style.

But what then should we make of undeniably powerful songs like Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall? The music is highly repetitive and doesn’t vary with the words. There’s no change in the guitar chords or strumming pattern, no change in the tune, no change in the vocal delivery. Dylan’s voice projects conviction, but he doesn’t do much to dramatize or differentiate each of the many images in the text: there’s no difference in delivery between, say, “six crooked highways” and “dozen dead oceans.” The song maintains the same gravely reflective tone throughout and it seems to begin in the same place where it ends. And somehow, the song is totally compelling from start to finish.

Dylan’s approach is classic example of what I’ve been calling the deadpan style, and the power of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall shows how effective it can be to let the words make their own statement. Dylan’s delivery is not quite aloof, but he doesn’t dramatize the words: he delivers them plainly so we can grapple with their sharp images and urgent warnings on our own. To try to inflect each line differently would be to complicate a song that’s most effective in its simple, raw form.

Another deadpan song performance that I like is Iris Dement’s rendition of the tune Pretty Saro in Songcatcher. The loneliness of the text is palpable although (or perhaps because) the vocal delivery is nearly monotonous. The same tune is repeated across multiple stanzas but there’s no attempt to musically differentiate one stanza from the next. There’s no change in delivery between those phrases that are about the singer’s own situation (“I viewed it all around me, saw I was quite alone”) from those that imagine the singer’s beloved (“And there in her lily-white arms I’d lay there all night”). Observational and aspirational lyrics receive the same melancholy delivery. To try to differentiate them would seem too fussy here. The performer here is not a dramatist – she’s just a lonely person singing a tune on a back porch.

Yet another deadpan performance that comes to mind is The Osborne Brothers’ take on Rocky Top. The singer marches through the lyrics with almost no modulation or dramatic emphasis, and yet it’s compelling. Compare this with Dolly Parton’s more dramatic take, where she underscores the humor of the lyrics, adjusting her delivery so we know what she thinks about each line. Where the lyrics are silly or sarcastic, she switches to a hybrid speaking/singing style to signal that she’s telling a joke. Her more heavily interpreted take on the song is decidedly fun, but I wouldn’t say that her increased involvement with the lyrics makes her performance “better” than the deadpan approach of the Osborne Brothers – it’s just different.

There are great dramatic songs and great deadpan songs, great dramatic performances and great deadpan ones. When you study singing and songwriting, it’s easy to get the idea that the dramatic approach is the more sophisticated one and is therefore somehow better. But sometimes the deadpan style, with its simplicity and directness, is just as compelling. Whether the composer and performer actively interpret the text, or whether they present it as raw material for the audience to grapple with, there’s a chance we’ll be moved by what we hear.

Addendum: I’m aware that the examples I’ve provided so far are all over the map, with Schubert and Dylan mentioned in the same breath. I’d like to refine the examples with contrasting pieces from the same time period, perhaps even by the same composer, illustrating the difference between what I’ve termed deadpan and dramatic. In the meantime, this post serves as first, rough step in clarifying my own thinking about an issue that often comes to mind when I try to write or perform songs.

Addendum 2: Some time after writing this post, I came across a passage by folksong collector Cecil Sharp that describes what I’ve called the deadpan style. This is from Sharp’s One Hundred English Folksongs (1916):

Before bringing these remarks to a conclusion, it is necessary to say something about the singing of folksongs. Traditionally, folksongs are sung not only without gesture, but with the greatest restraint in the matter of expression; indeed, the folksinger will usually close his eyes and observe an impassive demeanor throughout his performance. All who have heard him sing in this way will, I am confident, bear witness to the extraordinary effectiveness of this unusual mode of execution. Artistically, then, it will, I think, be found that the most effective treatment to accord to the folksong is to sing it as simply and as straightforwardly as possible, and, while paying the closest attention to the clear enunciation of the words and the preservation of an even, pleasant tone, to forbear, as far as may be, from actively and deliberately attempting to improve it by the introduction of frequent changes of time, crescendos, diminuendoes, and other devices of a like character.

If one accepts Sharp’s statements, would one conclude that the deadpan style is specifically appropriate for folksongs while the dramatic style is specifically appropriate for art songs? I wouldn’t make such a conclusion myself. I feel there’s room for either style to be applied to any type of song. But this is a question for another post. ■

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