Understanding Lyrics: Consider Sounds

by criticalhit009

This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.

  • Consider the sounds.
    • Do you notice any alliterationassonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, or rhyme that is used to create a particular effect on the poem?
    • Does the rhyme scheme or metrical patterns in the lyrics have a purpose, and if so, what is it?

This time around, I’ve linked to good introductions to the various literary devices to save us both time. To see how they all work together, let’s look at the first line of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”

The strong alliteration with the letter “T” draws us into the “tale”: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” While pleasing to the ear, the alliteration is also striking, the sharp “T” sound reflecting the abrasiveness to the tale about to unfold. It helps accent the choice of diction as well. By choosing the term “tale” instead of “story” or “account,” lyricist Stephen Sondheim accentuates the fictionalization and grandiose nature of the musical about to unfold.

The rhythm of the first line is Iambic tetrameter, further accentuating the “T” alliteration. Thus the various lyrical elements of the text reinforce each other, drawing the listener in. Add in the foreboding music and deep-voiced singer, and you get a strong, memorable opening line that also sheds light on the nature of the work itself. You, dear audience, are invited, nay, ordered to hear the sale tale of a man whose mind, body, and soul is ultimately consumed by 19th century England. Take heed.