“Word painting” is a technique in which the music of a song reflects or expands upon the meaning of the accompanying lyric. First used by the Madrigals of Renaissance Italy, word painting is used today mostly in musical theatre and film scores.
In a musical, if a character stands center-stage, spreads his arms, and belts out a life-affirming chorus about “making it to the top,” and the score’s tempo slows down, the melody hits a high note, or the strings swell to culminate in a cymbal crash, this is word painting at its most quintessential. Two great moments of word painting in pop music are Elliott Smith’s “Waltz # 1” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate”, which both use long, sustained notes to elaborate on the explicit meaning of their lyrics.
Much has been made of Elliott Smith’s often sad, sometimes lushly arranged folk/rock songs, and “Waltz # 1” shows why. A gorgeously fragile mood piece set to a waltzy 3/4 slow-dance rhythm, the song’s lyric seems to cross from melancholic meditatation of love lost into Smith’s other stand-by emotional touchpoint, defensive anger. And yet singing the song’s final lyric, “I wish I’d never seen your face,” Smith draws out the last word in a long note broken by several breaths.
That he was never known as a technically great singer could answer for these pauses. But the break could also signify a faltering desolation underlying the outwardly angry lyric, as Smith’s lovelorn speaker is finally unable to get out the intended biting words. Smith’s lack of breath in singing this anger reveals deeper, more unresolved emotion.
On the other hand, Rufus Wainwright, a classically trained singer turned pop star, has no problem holding out a note. In “Vibrate”, the singer performs a feat both technically and emotionally opposite to that attempted in “Waltz #1”. Where Smith breaks off, Wainwright lets his note go on and on, mirroring both the desired phone call from the song’s object and the dial tone that hums in the absence of this call. There is a yearning vulnerability to this long note, yet it is a sustained yearning and, thus, more sure of itself than Smith’s self-interruption; as mating call it is both brash and tender in its need for reciprocation.
Wainwright’s sustained note is a rare moment of technical proficiency carrying, rather than smothering, the meaning of a song.