FINDING THE MUSIC IN THE COPY
We’re all musical, whether or not we sing or play an instrument. If you
listen carefully, we sing when we speak. If you don’t believe me, try this
little exercise by saying out loud, “I’m feeling great today!” Now, say it
with your mouth closed. Do you hear the melody, the notes? The natural
inflection we use to emphasize words or phrases is the music of our voice.
Music is all around us. We hum tunes to ourselves all the time. At one time
or another most of us have pounded drums, tickled the ivories, sung in a
choir, strummed, plucked, blown or wailed. We sing in the shower, we sing
in the car. We’ve sung on Saturday or Sunday morning services, and have
followed the notation in the hymnal or prayer book. It’s a rare person with a
“tin ear.” Even someone who can’t carry a tune or dance can understand
rhythm. Most of us have enough sense of intonation to tell whether a note is
sharp or flat, whether it extends or stops abruptly.
Copy or text is musical. It has ebb and flow and different keys. It has
sharps, flats, rests, words that are held, chopped off, high or low, soft or
loud, all the same emphasis or wild ups and downs, with dynamics and
crescendos. Copy reads (or plays) like a story/song, with a beginning,
middle and end. Directors sometimes use musical terms to direct voice
actors. Take a beat would mean waiting a moment. Up a half step would
ask you to raise your pitch a bit. A staccato direction would mean hitting
words crisply and quickly. Legato would suggest you take a phrase or
sentence or section slower.
But there’s one thing that copy or text doesn’t have—a steady beat. Music
has a time signature—copy doesn’t. Copy has a cadence. Copy—particularly
conversational copy—has an ebb and flow. We don’t talk in a steady beat.
In our conversations, we talk fast, then slow down; we stammer and stutter.
We inflect wildly and project, or make our voices tiny, almost to a whisper.
Music in Copy-2
Sometimes our speech is bit jerky, but that’s how we talk. Our job as voice
actors is to take written words and turn them into the cadence of everyday
It all comes down to understanding that words and phrases have specific
sounds. Emotive words are the easiest to hear. Say the word “happy.”
What’s the sound of happy? It’s bright. It’s joyful. It’s a word that you
automatically lift, like your mouth. Conversely, what’s the sound of sad?
It’s mournful, and it’s a word that turns down, as your mouth does. Then
there are the sounds of conceptual words, like “hope” or “rejection.” The
first sounds comforting, uplifting. The second sounds sad and hurtful.
There’s also the sound of verbs and adverbs: “fast” sounds fast and should
be read a little bit quicker, and “slow,” well, you get the picture. Adjectives
are a gold mine of music, with words like “beautiful,” “ugly,” “brutish,”
“selfish” and on and on and on. Are you starting to hear the music?
When you take a musical approach to copy, you’ll have a better
understanding of the music hidden in scripts. Listen to the sound of your
voice in playbacks and hear the variation of “notes” and intensity. Although
I advise voice actors to not put headphones on when they’re acting (so
they’re focused more on the performance and don’t fall in love with the
sound of their voice), I find that actors learn to have more control of their
delivery with headphones on. The microphone is extremely sensitive to
every breath, every plosive.
Unless you’re performing animation or copy that requires a ton of energy
and inflection, most professional voice actors stay within a middle range of
notes, with occasional highs and lows, and maintain a consistent volume.
The more breath control you have (from the diaphragm, and with proper
posture), the more you’ll be able to hit certain “notes” as you deliver your
copy. A number of voice actors have confided that, at one point or another
in their career, they had a difficult time delivering a specific phrase during a
session, and the director gave them a line read (that’s how a director wants a
word or phrase or sentence to be delivered). If that ever happens to you,
don’t take it as an insult. Consider it part of the job—it’s just an instance
where you weren’t able to hear the music in the copy, the “notes.”
Music in Copy-3
Elaine Clarke, a veteran voice actor and the top V-O instructor in San
Francisco, has another interpretation:
“There is music in speech. It lilts up and down to separate thoughts,
emphasize key elements, or give directives. Even a monotone speaker lifts
and lowers the pitch slightly to separate phrases and add punctuation. It’s
all a matter of degree. When words are read, many readers forget to apply
this natural melody to speech…the problem with reading words on the page
is that the words don’t naturally belong to us. Often, the spoken words
sound read rather than real…What the actor has failed to achieve is
matching the way the words would sound had they come out of the speaker’s
mouth first, before they were typed. As voice actors, we have to learn to
break that acquired habit of sounding like we are reading and learn to speak
in a real and natural manner.” *
* Elaine A. Clark, There’s Money Where Your Mouth Is; Backstage Books (2000)
If you want to strengthen your interpretation and give more depth to your
performances, whether you’re acting in commercials, animation, narration,
audiobooks or even e-Learning courses, listen to the music of copy. Listen
to voice actors you admire and hear how they sing when they speak. Sing
more yourself, each day, to expand your vocal range, flexibility and
versatility. And you’ll soon hear the copy and text you narrate infused with
the beautiful music of your voice.
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