Word painting (also known as tone painting or text painting) is the musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song. For example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death.
Tone painting of words goes at least as far back as Gregorian chant. Little musical patterns are musical words that express not only emotive ideas such as joy but theological meanings as well in the Gregorian. For instance, the pattern FA-MI-SOL-LA signifies the humiliation and death of Christ and His resurrection into glory. FA-MI signifies deprecation, while SOL is the note of the resurrection, and LA is above the resurrection, His heavenly glory ("surrexit Jesus"). Such musical words are placed on words from the Biblical Latin text; for instance when FA-MI-SOL-LA is placed on "et libera" (e.g. introit for Sexagesima Sunday) in the Christian faith it signifies that Christ liberates us from sin through His death and resurrection.
Composers also experimented with word painting in Italian madrigals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Word painting flourished well into the Baroque music period. One famous, well known example occurs in Handel's Messiah, where a tenor aria contains Handel's setting of the text:
- Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40:4)
In Handel's melody, the word "valley" ends on a low note, "exalted" is a rising figure; "mountain" forms a peak in the melody, and "hill" a smaller one, while "low" is another low note. "Crooked" is sung to a rapid figure of four different notes, while "straight" is sung on a single note, and in "the rough places plain," "the rough places" is sung over short, separate notes whereas the final word "plain" is extended over several measures in a series of long notes. This can be seen in the following example:
A modern example of word painting from the late 20th century occurs in the song "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. During the chorus, Brooks sings the word "low" on a low note. Similarly, on The Who's album Tommy, the song "Smash the Mirror" contains the line
- Can you hear me? Or do I surmise
- That you feel me? Can you feel my temper
- Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise....
Each repetition of 'rise' is a half-step higher than the last, making this an especially overt example of word-painting.
Justin Timberlake's song "What goes around" is another popular example of text painting. The lyrics
- What goes around, goes around, goes around
- Comes all the way back around
descend an octave and then return to the upper octave, as though it was going in around in a circle.
In the chorus of Up Where We Belong, the melody rises during the words "Love lift us up where we belong."
In Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, there is an inverse word painting where 'down, down, down' is sung to the notes rising, and 'higher' is sung dropping from a higher to a lower note.
- M. Clement Morin and Robert M. Fowells, "Gregorian Musical Words", in Choral essays: A Tribute to Roger Wagner, edited by Williams Wells Belan, San Carlos (CA): Thomas House Publications, 1993
- Sadie, Stanley. Word Painting. Carter, Tim. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Second edition, vol. 27.
- How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Part 1, Disc 6, Robert Greenberg, San Francisco Conservatory of Music