Form in the Function

Higher and Higher)

We will soon be in the Christmas season, during which time innumerable Christian churches will be putting on a performance of Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that tells the story of Jesus Christ, first composed some two-hundred-and-eighty years ago by George Frideric Handel. It is, perhaps, the most famous of all Christmas music pieces, especially its Hallelujah Chorus.

It is also an excellent example of something called “word painting,” which means music that is written to imitate the text that is being sung. So, for example, take that most-famous movement we just mentioned: the Hallelujah Chorus. Look at the notes alongside of the text and you will see there is a deliberate connection between the written words and sudden changes of pitch.

For starters, go 29 seconds into the piece where they start to sing “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” Notice how relatively low the first phrase is sung at, with the Hallelujah’s suddenly exalting to the stratosphere?

Now go forward to 1:17, and see how they are singing “The kingdom of this world” with notes dragging along at G4, down as low as the world and all measly its kingdoms. But then with the following words: “the kingdom of our Lord,” the notes suddenly shoot up an entire octave, mingling with the heavens!

And finally go to 1:59 for that famous “King of kings, and Lord of lords!” There are these two phrases repeated three times, for six individual statements. And notice how each statement is a few notes above the previous, giving a sense of constant ascension, like that of Jesus ascending above all other kings and lords.

And this same pairing of text to note is evident in other movements in this oratorio. Consider this one from All We Like Sheep.

Right at the start notice that the four-part harmony is kept in unison through the first phrase “All we, like sheep.” But then, when they sing “have gone astray,” the notes go all over the place. In fact, they not only wander, but they wander differently from each other. The sopranos are going astray one direction and the tenors in another!

Thus, Handel did not only write music that was pleasant to listen to, he also wrote it to have special significance when paired with its words. That is a very impressive feat, and no doubt part of why this piece remains so compelling nearly three hundred years later.

Assigning Meaning)

Of course, what does more rapid vibrations in the voice of soprano really have to do with Jesus being the king of kings? Well, nothing, I suppose. We artificially decided to call notes at a more rapid frequency as being of “higher” pitch, and decided to call one person who rules over others as also being of a “higher” status. And so, the pairing of “higher” notes to Jesus being of a “higher” status is somewhat arbitrary. It really only makes sense if your language happens to tie those ideas together.

Suppose it had been more common in our culture to say that a ruler was of a “lower” status than everyone else, because the leader was the foundation of them all. Then Handel might very well have written his piece so that it was the bass’s who belted out Jesus was the lowest Lord of them all.

And to be sure, this phenomenon of symbolism being changed by cultural and linguistic meaning really does occur in life. In the west we typically associate the color red with anger and harm, which is why the color is reserved in Star Wars for Darth Vader’s lightsaber and the emperor’s personal guards. But in China red is a good color, signifying luck and fortune. Thus, in the Chinese film Hero, a major sequence is shown with the heroic characters clothed in red, protecting a calligraphy school from a barrage of arrows. Seeing the protagonist dash about in streaming red may make for a strange, conflicting image to western audiences, but it wouldn’t have in China.


And, of course, the written word is also used to accentuate the feelings that the author wishes to convey. Deep, thoughtful moments are written with long, adjective-ridden sentences. Sudden, impactful moments in short, direct phrases.

And I tried to follow this same wisdom in the last chapter of my story. During a moment of battle, I described its sequence of events in a short staccato:

Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett's face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.

The battle concluded, and I suddenly started to put a lot more detail into my sentences, taking the time to make the painful effects of the fight sink into the character and the reader:

Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.

Whether in music, or cinema, or literature, it isn’t just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it. Each of these mediums are very robust, they are able to convey an extremely wide range of mood and expression. Anyone that uses them should become familiarize with each of these forms, so that they properly know how to apply them to the appropriate function.

If you can capture the spirit of your scene’s action in the structure of your sentence, then it no longer is a case of you telling the reader what has happened, you are causing them to experience it directly!

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