How to Write Music Ep. 1: Tone Painting

How would you go about it, if I asked you to compose a melody for this verse to be sung?

“My heart is leaping to the sound of your voice.”

What about something like this?

Or maybe this?

The possibilities are endless but what we really want is to bring out the meaning of the words. And this is where tone painting (also known as word painting) is really useful. It will help us narrow down the possibilities and better yet, it allows us to let the meaning of the verse itself guide the music.



So what is tone painting in music?

Tone painting is the technique of shaping vocal music according to the meaning of the words. For example, we’d write a melody that goes up on words such as ‘rising’, ‘uphill’ and ‘climbing’ or have the music go really quiet on words such as ‘soft’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘calm’.

Let’s look at some real examples.

Note: To learn music composition with me, check out the Online Tuition page. 


Here’s an Aria (a classical song performed by a soloist, usually part of an opera) from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. Here the character is crying and expressing grief. This is the opening of the piece and in simple words, it translates to “Let me cry about my bad fate.” Apart from being in a minor key, notice how the melody moves by a half step on the words ‘ch’io pianga’ (meaning ‘that I cry’) and ‘crude sorte’ (meaning ‘cruel fate’). In this context, it’s the perfect choice of interval to express sadness.

Notice also how the structure of the melody itself imitates crying. It’s broken up into short fragments separated by rests so the singer is forced to stop and start several times as if losing breath. When we cry, we generally take much shorter breaths.

The falling minor second is actually a very common motif to represent weeping or grief as from the 16th century. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s known as the ‘pianto’, Italian for ‘crying’.

Here’s another example of the pianto. This one is from Monteverdi’s Lamento D’Arianna. It’s also in a minor key and the singer sings “Lasciatemi morire” (Italian for “let me die”). The word die is sung to the lowest note of the phrase as if indicating a feeling of resignation or of giving up to bad luck like the previous example.

Now tone painting isn’t limited to sadness or a simple choice of minor keys. It goes much deeper into shaping the details of the music.

In this next example also by Handel, the choir sings “Glory to God the Highest and peace on earth”. The words “Glory to God the Highest” are sung to a majestic and lively melodic contour. The words “And peace on earth” are sung softly to a single note.

Handel’s choice of voices is also telling. ‘Glory to God’ is sung by the whole choir except for the bass voices. The absence of the basses creates a brighter and lighter sound. On the other hand, “peace on earth” is sung by the male voices only (tenors and basses) in a relatively low register.

It’s clear that Handel is showing us a contrast between that which is heavenly and that which belongs down on Earth.

Let’s move on in music history by some 200 years.

Vaughan Williams’ opening of the Sea Symphony is absolutely awe-inspiring. After a brief fanfare, the choir comes in with a massive entry on the words “Behold! The Sea!” The composer clearly wants to astound us at the thought of the majestic sea and the grandeur of nature. As listeners, we have no choice but to ‘behold’!

Speaking of creating an atmosphere based on the words, there are two fantastic songs by Pink Floyd that I want to bring up. Strictly speaking, these aren’t actual examples of tone painting because the parts I’m referring to are instrumental. But they are great examples of using sound to prepare the listener for the meaning of the lyrics. I’m referring to the songs ‘Money’ and ‘Time’ from ‘the Dark Side of the Moon’ album.

‘Money’ begins with the sound of cash registers. ‘Time’ begins with the sound of a variety of ringing and ticking clocks until eventually, after the two-minute mark, the singer comes in with the words “Ticking Away”. You should definitely check them out on whichever service you use for streaming music.

Back to actual word painting: here’s an example from Rossini’s popular aria “Largo al Factotum”. The singer sings a descending octave on the word “Largo”. Here it means “make way” or “give me space”. Indeed there is a lot of space between these two notes – the space of a whole octave in fact:

Here’s the same interval in a more modern setting. On the word ‘fallen’ the melody literally falls an octave.

Now let’s move on to one of my favorite examples of Tone Painting. It’s from Mozart’s “Voi Che Sapete”, an aria from the Marriage of Figaro opera. The song features a young boy describing love. At the moment when this stanza is sung, the rhythm consists of shorter values giving the impression of palpitations and loss of breath:

Notice also how the pattern goes up (known as a sequence – a repetition at higher or lower pitch), which helps produce a sense of anxiety or excitement.


Word painting doesn’t affect only the melody. It can influence any other aspect of the music. In our next example, the story of the poem guides the composer’s choice of accompaniment and tempo, which of course, affect the entire mood of the whole piece.

I’m talking about Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. It’s about a sick boy who’s rushed away on horseback by his father very late at night. As the boy is dying he has visions of the ‘Erlkönig’ – the German/Scandinavian mythical creature that visits the dying (akin to the grim reaper in other cultures). The singer has several roles: he sings from the point of view of the narrator, the father, the boy as well as the Erlkönig himself. Schubert portrays these characters with different ranges of the voice and also with different types of accompaniment. It’s a good idea to listen to the whole piece but here is the piano introduction, which sets up the scenario. The fast triplets themselves express a great sense of rush and urgency:

Tone painting doesn’t have to be complex either. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Hallelujah’ involves a rather simple chord progression but there’s this particular stanza where the chords match the lyrics perfectly:

“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift”

On the word ‘fourth’, the chord is the 4th in its key and similarly on the word ‘fifth’, the chord is the 5th in the key. On the words “major lift”, the chord is major; on the words “minor fall”, the chord is minor. For me these subtle touches give an added depth to the lyrics.

Now just in case the theory behind this is not clear to you, study this lesson and it will make sense. In short, if we take the key of C major, the fourth chord is F major and the fifth is G major:

This, by the way, reminds of the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music. Here not only the harmony is affected by the lyrics but even the very structure of the melody itself. The song is from a scene where the protagonist, Maria, teaches music to the children under her care. She does so by singing to them a song in which every verse begins with the next note in the scale – both in the lyrics and the music. (‘Doh’, ‘re’, ‘mi’, ‘fa’, ‘sol’, ‘la’, ‘ti’ are the syllables used for the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B in some ear training activities. The first word of every line of this stanza is one of these syllables).

Doe, a deer, a female deer,
Ray, a drop of golden sun,
Me, a name I call myself,
Far, a long, long way to run,
Sew, a needle pulling thread,
La, a note to follow Sew,
Tea, a drink with jam and bread,
That will bring us back to Do”

Tone Painting in the Sound of Music

(Note: Recordings of this song are normally in B flat but I’ve transposed the notation to C for ease of reading).



Tone Painting Exercises

Now that you’ve seen a good number of examples, how would you tackle that first verse I showed you at the beginning? Here are some suggestions to try out Tone Painting for yourself. Share your work with us on our FB group, I’d love to see your ideas!

1. Listen to how Tone Painting is used in these pieces:

  • As Vesta was Descending by Thomas Weelkes (notice what happens on the words: “descending“, “ascending“, “long” and the phrases “two by two“, “three by three” and “all alone“).
  • Smash the Mirror by The Who (Notice how the melody rises on the repetition of the word ‘rise’).
  • Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson (Wait for the climactic change of key on the word ‘change’ itself at 02:53)

2. Compose short musical extracts for a couple of these short verses.

  • My heart is leaping to the sound of your voice.
  • Together we rise. Alone we sink.
  • Up, down, left or right? It matters not if you’re with me.
  • She is all alone in a sea of people.
  • It’s a slow, long way to home.

3. To learn music composition with me on a 1-to-1 basis, check out the Online Tuition page.