Lyrically Speaking: “Places We Won’t Walk” Part 2: Sonics

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Words have more than meanings. Words have sounds, and the sounds themselves can be arranged to create motion, and thus e-motion. Sounds affect language, rhythm, and melody. They fill in the scaffolding of structure with a whole collection of colors and nuance. They can highlight ideas. They also, as we’ll see, can affect the balance and stability of a section. 

We’ll look primarily at the vowel sounds in Bruno Major’s “Places We Won’t Walk,” both their arrangements and their qualities. Vowels dominate songs because they’re the tone generators of language; we hold them out, not consonants. That’s not to ignore that there’s a real banquet of alliteration in this lyric, even in the w’s of the refrain. There’s a lot going on sonically here. Listen to verse one: 

Sunlight dances off the leaves, 

Birds of red colour the trees, 

Flowers filled with buzzing bees,  a 

In places we won’t walk.

Verse one rhymes the long-e sound in the first three lines. Since we’re expecting a fourth line long-e rhyme– expecting to hear the sound again when we hear the second stressed syllable of the refrain line, 

In places we won’t walk  

we gets a little added emphasis, gets a little spotlight. It’s a targeting technique– choosing rhyme sounds to spotlight a word in your title or refrain. Not saying Bruno Major did that intentionally. But he could have.  

Verse two uses the long-i sound, and not only in the end-lines: 

Neon lights shine bold and bright

Buildings grow to dizzy heights

People come alive at night

In places we won’t walk 

Long-i is a diphthong, ah as in fatherand short-i, ah being our most open sound. It’s right at the point of the vowel triangle: 

Say verse two aloud. Feel how the long-i opens you up, makes the lights brighter, the buildings taller, and the party lively. The quality of the open ah sound (the way it’s formed in the mouth) actually has an effect on the scene. Maybe call it sonic prosodySpecial kudos to line two: 

Buildings grow to dizzy heights

The back-vowel (lip vowel) in grow takes us to the sonic basement, then moves to the front vowel (tongue vowel) short-i in dizzy before exploding into the ah of the word heightsSay the line. Feel it rise.  

Now feel the contrast between the brightness of the city’s vowel sounds and the sounds of the refrain: In places we won’t walk

Less color in these front vowels and the darker aw sound in walk. You can hear the comedown, the disappointment.  

The chorus’ long-a end-rhyme targets place in the refrain.  

Children cry and laugh and play

Slowly hair will turn to gray

We will smile to end each day

In places we won’t walk 

The sonic spotlight enhances the first metaphorical use of the refrain (see last issue). A life span is a place only metaphorically. 

Long-a is a diphthong, made up of short-e and long-e: eheeSay it aloud, very slowly. Now watch that pattern repeat in the last two lines: 

We will smile to [end each] [day]

In [plac][es we] won’t walk 

The repetition casts additional spotlights on both place and we. More importantly, it isolates the vowel sounds in won’t walk, highlighting them by contrast! Additionally, the repetition of the ehee sound four times creates something like a sonic cadence, stopping a little short, further isolating won’t walk. 

Verse three rhymes the end of the refrain, walk: 

Family look on in awe

Petals decorate the floor

Waves gently stroke the shore

In places we won’t walk 

Though r modifies the vowels in floor and shorethe aw sound is still present, creating a hint of an aaaa balanced rhyme scheme. It makes this verse the least unstable section in the song. (Even if the impact of the r creates an abba rhyme motion, it’s still the only section in the song where each end-line rhyme connects with another end-line rhyme.) Note the bonding of decorate/waves/placesfurther stabilizing the section. And notice stroke giving won’t a little boost too. Though the short fourth line still does its de-stabilizing work, the sonic fabric feels the most solid, adding a “that’s the way it is” air of finality to the refrain, preparing for the final “Yes, alas…” chorus.  

This is where the hammer falls. Isolation from each other is inescapable. The first two words of the chorus take on a deeper color: 

Children cry and laugh and play

Slowly hair will turn to gray

We will smile to end each day

In places we won’t walk 

Now hair turns gray, fading without the other’s presence, slowed down and diminished by the r’s in hair and turn, and consigned to the darkness of the back vowel in turnAlas, indeed. 

* * * 

We’ve spent two issues on three aspects of this song. How much of what we’ve seen was intentionaland how much either instinctual or accidental? Hard to know without inside information from the writer, but it really doesn’t matter. The more interesting question is “How much of it could be intentional?” How much of the structure and sonics could have been consciously chosen, intended to support the main message and metaphor of the song? Even more to the point, how much of the song you’re writing is intentional, and how much “just happens?”  

As usual, information is king. You can’t compose with something you didn’t realize was there. Another good reason to study and learn.  

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