This is the second in my installment of mini-composition lessons based on non-classical music, this time on the topic of how to write for voice. Today, I’m going to take a look at “Police Story” by the Dirty Projectors, which I think is a fantastic example of how to use timbre and word-music placement to great effect. “Police Story” is practically an instructional guide on how to fully and effectively use voice in composition. It’s also great in a lot of other ways, but we’ll focus on the vocal elements.

To start, a general outline of the form: “Police Story” is roughly structured into four distinct musical ideas: introduction, alternation of two types of material (A & B), and a coda on new material. It contrasts very tranquil instrumental accompaniment with very aggressive singing and lyrics. The introduction and coda are both instrumental, while the rest of the piece uses voice.

Text is a vital part of the music

“Police Story” is an angry rant against police brutality in which the character describes various injustices. The text is sparse, each word chosen for impact both musically and dramatically. After a relatively tranquil instrumental introduction, vocalist/guitarist David Longstreth bursts into an aggressive ascending line on the text, “This fucking city is run by pigs!” We are thrown forcefully into the world of the song, one that is defined by poignant contrasts between calm instrumental music and harshness in the text and singing.

That first line highlights just how powerful text can be in music. Many composers treat text as secondary: something you need to come up with because there happens to be a singer in the ensemble. Once in awhile that is a useful construction, but most of the time putting the text in the background is really just a missed opportunity. A powerful text treated masterfully creates a heightened experience that instrumental music alone rarely achieves. It is for this reason that pop music almost always has voice. No, not all pop lyrics are inspired and I readily admit that many do little more than provide an excuse for the singer to sing, but the obligatory inclusion of voice in pop music speaks to its potential to transform the listening experience. More composers should look at text as the generative impetus for their music in the way Longstreth does.

Accented and unaccented words

Going back to that first line, the way it is set is also striking. Of the seven words, two are extremely vulgar nouns and one is a verb. The rest are transitional words. Longstreth spits out the word fucking in a harsh tone in the low register. Pigs is treated in the same way, except that it is a high note and Longstreth lingers on it a bit. Emphasizing these words makes sense because they are loaded and will make people perk up. I’ve often said that it’s very hard to swear effectively when singing, but if you need an example of how to do it, listen to “Police Story.”

Swearing is hard because the majority of singing is expressive and nuanced. When you sing “fuck,” it usually comes off sounding cheap—like you’re trying to make up for something that’s missing in the music. To use the word successfully, you need to have an extremely balanced musical structure and a vocal interpretation to match. (Hip-hop is the exception, because spoken word is naturally more percussive and the harshness of profanity is appropriate.)

Timbre is what makes a melody

Another important consideration of the vocal part is the way Longstreth uses growls and other harsh timbres to expressive effect, starting with the first word of the second line of text (bolded):

This fucking city is run by pigs!
They take away the rights from all the kids.

His strained-sounding they hurts to listen to, but it lands perfectly at the high-point of the two-stanza phrase, which has a symmetrical up/down shape.

Consider how unremarkable the word they would be in most musical contexts. It’s not an important word and it’s entirely generic. However, in this case it appears at the climax of an extremely forceful vocal exclamation, made even more powerful by the gentle guitar strumming beneath it. Anything less than a painfully strained vocal timbre would not do justice to the spirit of the song.

When working with text, composers need to pay attention to the secondary level of meaning that occurs in the level of dissonance between music and text. Completely inexperienced composers pay no attention to word–music placement when they write, leading to unclear text and phrasing. Those with somewhat more experience take the accented words and map them out mathematically to the musical phrasing, creating clear but somewhat predictable lines. However, great composers map most but not all of the accented words to musical phrasing: they sometimes force unaccented words to the forefront like Longstreth’s growled they. It’s a push and pull between words and music that provides a touch of unpredictability and nuance, making the song more interesting.

Melisma & text–music relationships

Throughout the song, Longstreth uses progressively more baroque melismas to ornament his vocal declamation. In the A sections, these are limited to slides and 2- or 3-note trills. In the B sections, however, he extends the melisma into an expressive gesture, hanging onto the last word of the line, “I tell them to go get fucked, they put me away.” That word away becomes an important musical transition, a forceful declamation over calm guitar chords that eventually leads to more subdued material.

Melisma is a concept that only exists in vocal writing: having more than one note per syllable of text. It is often used to turn the voice into a de facto wind instrument, but I don’t think that’s the best use of the technique, because it is devoid of intentionality. The voice is not a wind instrument: we know instinctively that it emanates from a set of vocal chords and that people use vocal sounds primarily to communicate linguistically. Sure, sometimes a vocal cry can transcend language, but it should never be used to makes something less expressive than language. Consider Freddie Mercury’s powerful vocal slide in “Under Pressure,” which always sends shivers up my spine: that’s what a non-linguistic melisma should do.

In “Police Story,” Longstreth demonstrates two useful ways to employ melisma: (1) to make the music better serve the text, as in the ornaments he places on run and pigs; and (2) to make the text better serve the music, as he does on the transitional away.

Melisma is powerful because it brings into contrast the relationship between words and text, emphasizing one over the other. When you have one note = one syllable musical phrases, listeners simply hear singing. When you employ melisma strategically, listeners hear directionality to and from important words. Short text-serving melismas function as accents that heighten the storytelling aspect of a song. Longer music-serving melismas function as formal markers or transitions into different types of musical material.

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There are a lot of other interesting aspects to this song, such as the contrast between calm and aggressive materials, the stylized punctuation marks that delineate the form, and the coda that has little to do musically with the rest of the piece. So great text–music writing is not the only important consideration in sung music, but it is a pretty important piece of the pie. If you swapped out Longstreth’s vocal part for a clarinet melody, it might be an interesting piece, but nothing nearly as powerful as “Police Story” is. Composers could do worse than to imitate Longstreth’s approach in this song.