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Declamation: Definition, Music & Examples

Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
Declamation is the relationship of text to music. In this lesson we will learn how it is used by composers and singers to enhance the music and also how it functions as a musical style.

What Is Declamation?

The word 'declaim' comes from the Latin word 'clamare', which means to cry or shout; to declaim is to speak in an oratorical manner, such as when giving a formal speech or reciting a poem. In the music world, declamation is the way in which composers set words to music for singers to perform, using the rhythms of the language or the rising or falling of the pitch to express the text. Declamation can also refer to a type of singing style that has a speech-like quality known as recitative.

Composers and Declamation

A good composer of vocal music uses the inflection of the text as a basis for writing a melody, making sure that the strong syllables of the words correspond to the strong beats of the music. For example, it would be awkward and silly for a singer to hold on to a note on an unimportant word like 'and' or 'is' and it would change the meaning and experience of the music.

Have you ever heard the titular song from Rogers and Hammerstein's 'The Sound of Music'? It starts with this line:

The hills are alive

with the sound of music.

Rogers and Hammerstein wrote this song so that the word 'music' would be held out longer than the other words to emphasize its meaning and importance. Imagine if the word 'of' was held longer than 'music' - it would change the shape of the melody, and the meaning of the phrase.

Singers and Declamation

Good singers are also mindful of the their role in declamation. For instance, here are the lyrics to the first line of 'Amazing Grace':

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

In the opening line, if the singer does not have the poetry in mind as she sings, she might emphasize the word 'THE' rather than one of the more important words. If she also thinks of the meaning of the word 'sweet' as she sings it, it will become sweet. And what about the word 'amazing'? It can sound 'a-MAZ-ing' if the singer stresses the second syllable in her singing. Paying close attention to the declamation of the words helps the music to come alive; otherwise it is just a bunch of pretty sounds.

Word Painting

Word painting is an important and specific type of declamation that composers use to musically express the meaning of a word being sung. It was an especially popular device during the Baroque period, but was used in more subtle ways in other periods as well. For example, the word 'heaven' in Baroque music almost always was expressed by use of an ascending phrase and the word 'water' by a rising and falling of the pitch.

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