‘Something in the way [they sing]’ Paralanguage and The Beatles
This paper identifies and analyses paralinguistic intonation in popular song. Building on theories derived from linguistics, paralanguage is understood as a form of meta-communication, that may modify meaning, give rise to nuanced meaning or convey expressions of emotion. This interdisciplinary approach to analysing popular song combines musicology, linguistics, and sound studies.
Popular song is suited to a paralinguistic analysis because it benefits from the combination of everyday words and music. Using spectrograms, I discuss singers’ subtle pitch and rhythm inflections that give phrases and songs their particular expressive qualities. Important inflections in a song may relate to pitch, contour or rhythmic traits, or may be the combination of simultaneous characteristics in multiple domains. Intonation gives rise to aural shape including, but not limited to, the arch-shape. The consistency of arch-shaped intonation, on words of woe, contributes to a song’s narrative structure.
These ideas are presented through case studies from The Beatles’ albums. In ‘Misery’, for instance, Lennon consistently sings an arch-shape – his voice swells upward to the primary pitch, before sliding downward in a long decay. The prevalence of arched intonation, on words such as ‘world’ and ‘misery’, emphasise and overplay the emotional misfortune of the narrator. This and other voice qualities are significant because they enhance our understanding and reception of popular song.
Bláithín Duggan is a PhD researcher in Trinity College, Dublin. Her work focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis and interpretation of popular song. In 2018, Bláithín was elected Post-graduate Student Representative for the Society for Musicology in Ireland.