What is Scansion?

on . Posted in Singing.

Scansion (pronounced scan-shun) is matching the meter of the words with the meter of the music, so that we have the right ACCent on the right SYLLable, and not an acCENT on a syllABle. (See what I did there?) The accent of the music and the accent of the text must match.MaybeSoCover


Written for Perfect Scansion: Maybe So


There’s a pretty cool scansion story behind the brilliance that is “Maybe So.” It began as an exercise in scansion and ended up heart-wrenchingly beautiful, an devotion to unrequited love. It’s a product of the 2009 Composer-Librettist Studio (the C-L Studio) at Nautilus Music-Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota.


In the C-L Studio six librettists, six composers, and six singers take part in this two-week workshop and exercise collaboration, spontaneity, improvisation, and intense musical output. Collaboration is key and there is not a whole lot of sleep for the composers & librettists, who have 24 hours to create an entirely new piece of music for 1-3 voices.

For each new piece there is a specific goal that is usually a challenge for the composer or perhaps for the lyricist, so if the lyricist frequently writes prose, the challenge may be “comedy,” or if the composer frequently writes freely, the challenge may be that the new piece needs to be “written in canon” (remember how you'd sing "Row, row, row your boat with a few other people at summer camp and you'd all start after everyone else had? That's a canon.) In the case of “Maybe So,” it was perfect scansion.

Composer Cathy Dalton, lyricist Savannah Reich and I were matched up for this exercise. Savannah had her free choice for the topic and it was Cathy’s job to write the piece with perfect scansion. She chose to keep it very simple, which crystalized the emotions and draws out the languishing, fretful situation of the singer.


Take for example, these lines (the strong accents are bolded).


I’d rather keep confusing you
Than run the risk of losing you
I’ll bite my tongue forever


If we make a “postcard” out of those words, we get:  rather confusing, run risk losing, bite forever. The meaning is present even with more than half the words missing, isn't it?


Now contrast that with poor scansion:


I’d rather keep confusing you
Than run the risk of losing you
I’ll bite my tongue forever.


It’s just not the same. This postcard is more like "I'd keep you. Than the you. I'll forever."


Listen to perfect scansion and console your angst-ridden teenage self that still hasn’t gotten over that one that got away…

 

MaybeSoCover

Maybe So

 

Composed by Catherine Dalton

with Clinton Smith, piano
Listen to a clip: