Word-Painting Is to Vocal Music as ________ Is to Instrumental

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Learn about the different techniques composers use to add emotion and depth to their instrumental music.

What is word-painting?

Word-painting is a musical technique in which the composer writes music that paints or illustrates a word or phrase. The technique can be used to depict everything from physical objects and actions to abstract concepts. Usually, the word or phrase being depicted is sung by the vocalist, but it can also be spoken by another performer or simply implied by the music itself.

One of the most famous examples of word-painting can be found in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cantata BWV 147,” also known as “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and mouth and deed and life). In the final movement of this cantata, Bach sets the words “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” to a soaring melody that seems to convey both the joy and the yearning implied by the text.

While word-painting is often associated with classical music, it occurs in all genres. In pop music, for example, it’s not uncommon for songs about heartbreak to include lyrics about rain or stormy weather, as these can be used to symbolize the emotional state of the character in the song. Similarly, Up-tempo songs may make use of word-painting techniques to convey a sense of excitement or energy.

Instrumental music can also make use of word-painting, though it may be less obvious due to the lack of lyrics. For example, a slow, melancholy melody could be said to paint a sad or regretful scene, while a fast, lively melody might depict something more joyful or energizing. In some cases, composers will even include instructions in their scores indicating how they want certain passages to be interpreted.

What are the benefits of word-painting?

When it comes to music, there are countless ways to create a mood, tell a story, or convey an emotion. One of the most effective (and evocative) techniques is word-painting, which employs musical devices to “paint” or reinforce the meaning of the lyrics.

Word-painting can be used in any genre, but it’s particularly common in vocal music, where the human voice is the primary instrument. When done well, word-painting can make a song more memorable and effective. It can also help listeners understand the lyrics on a deeper level.

There are many benefits to word-painting, both for performers and listeners. On a technical level, it can help singers control their voices and express themselves more effectively. For listeners, word-painting can enhance the emotional impact of a song and make the lyrics more vivid and comprehensible.

Some of the most common devices used in word-painting are repetition, changes in dynamics (volume), tempo (speed), and timbre (tone). By repeating certain words or phrases, singers can emphasize important ideas or create a sense of unity. Changes in dynamics can be used to indicate changes in emotion, from happiness to sadness or anger to fear. A sudden increase in tempo can convey excitement or energy, while a decrease can evoke calmness or introspection

How can word-painting be used in vocal music?

Word-painting is a musical technique in which the composer writes music that reflects the literal meaning of the lyrics. It is often used in vocal music, but can also be found in instrumental pieces. In vocal music, word-painting can be used to heighten the emotions conveyed in the lyrics, or to paint a picture of the scene being described. It can also be used for humorous effect.

There are many ways to create word-painting in vocal music. The most common is to choose musical notes that reflect the pitch of the words being sung. For example, if a character is singing about falling from a great height, the composer might use sharp dissonances and quick downward scale passages to create a sense of tumbling down. Another common way to create word-painting is to use dynamics to reflect the meaning of the lyrics. For example, if a character is singing about being sad and lost, the composer might use very soft dynamics and little movement in the melody to create a sense of loneliness and despair.

Word-painting can be an effective way to add interest and depth to vocal music. When used skillfully, it can genuinely enhance the emotional impact of a song. However, it is important not to overuse word-painting, as it can quickly become tiresome for listeners if every line of lyrics is accompanied by obtrusive and obvious musical effects. When used sparingly and judiciously, word-painting can be a powerful tool for composers working in any genre of vocal music.

How can word-painting be used in instrumental music?

One of the ways in which word-painting can be used in instrumental music is by using the instrument to imitate the timbre, or tone, of the human voice. For example, a clarinet may play a phrase using a vibrato technique that imitates the human voice shaking on certain syllables. This can add expressiveness to the music and make it more interesting to listen to. Another way to use word-painting in instrumental music is by playing phrases that imitate the inflection or emphasis that is typically used when speaking. For instance, a horn might play a series of notes that go up in pitch on words that are typically spoken with positive emotion, such as “happy,” “joyful,” or “love.” This can again add expressiveness and interest to the music.

What are some examples of word-painting in music?

In music, word-painting is the compositional technique of using musical notation to describe or suggest extra-musical images, emotions, or scenarios. It is sometimes also called tone-painting, pictorialism, or musically painted prose. It has been employed in many styles of Western classical music, including Renaissance music, Baroque music, Classical Romantic music, and modern art music.

There are many examples of word-painting in vocal music. One famous example is from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cantata BWV 140”, in which the words “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (awake, calls the voice to us) are set to a musical scale that ascends upwards. This example highlights the meaning of the text by using a musical motif that literally paints the images of waking up and hearing a call.

Other examples of word-painting in vocal music include setting the text “hush” to a soft and quiet melody, or setting the text “laugh” to a jokey and playful section of music. In instrumental music, word-painting is often used to evoke specific images or scenes. For example, a composer might use descending scales to depict someone falling down stairs, or rapid arpeggios to depict running water.

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