- Word underlay is how the words that are to be sung are written in a piece of music.
- Words are spaced out so that each syllable is placed immediately under the note it is to be sung to, and syllables are separated by hyphens:
- Each syllable should be sung separately, with the vowel sound lengthened to the length of the note:
- So the "h" sound at the start should be heard when you count "1" for the first beat;
- The "oh" vowel sound should continue through the second beat until you are about to count "3";
- The "s" sound should come exactly on the third beat;
- Even though there is a "n" written at the end of this syllable, it is an "ah" sound that should be heard through the third beat and into the fourth;
- The "na" at the end of the bar shold then be quite quick, lasting only half a beat.
- As can be seen, this sometimes results in unnatural spacing of words:
- A compromise is usually made between spacing the music according to the lengths of the notes and spacing the words.
- The aim is not to space the music or words so that it is more difficult to sight-sing, but sometimes this is unavoidable.
- Sometimes a word or syllable has to be sung to more than one note.
- The notes that are to be sung to one word or syllable are joined with a curved line, either a tie or a slur;
- And the word or syllable is extended below all the notes with an underscore line.
- In this example, there are two curved lines where one word or syllable is sung to more than one note:
- Between the first and second bars on the word "of", two notes are tied together.
This means that the one note is made longer, so the word lasts longer.
- In the last bar, four quavers are sung to the syllable "Da-" and are joined by a slur.
This is called a "melisma", although the word is normally reserved for the case when many notes are sung to one word or syllable.
In everday usage, the above example is usually just called a slur.
- Here are some other general issues with word underlay that you may come across:
- Sometimes words are written above the music rather than below;
- You may see more than one line of words underneath a line of music, or one above and one below. This is normally done if the music repeats, and a different set of words are sung each time;
- Sometimes, e.g. in a hymn or song book where there are multiple verses to the same tune, the words are not laid out under the notes, but separate from them:
- A set of notes that is intended to be sung to one word or syllable should still have a slur drawn;
- Just occasionally you might see a dotted slur - this normally indicates that the slur applies to some verses but not to all;
- Sometimes, especially in old music, groups of quavers (or semiquavers etc) are beamed according to the word underlay rather than by beats and sub-beats and slurs are not always drawn. Editors often add them in modern editions.
- A slur with a short vertical line through it normally means the slur has been added by an editor, and not by the original composer - slurs for vocal music were not generally used in Tudor times. This is a publishers mark, not a musical sign:
- This example also shows a tie and slur on the same word. This may look confusing, but a tie can only be between two notes of the same pitch, so a tie is normally drawn closer to the note heads that a slur.
- The example above also shows (in the last bar) how a word can be indicated to be sung as one syllable, even though in normal speech it is two.
- Sometimes, two syllables are apparently written to one note. This usually is intended to be an elision - i.e. an omission of a syllable.
In the example below, the first two bars should be sung as the last two bars, and are sometimes written like this: