Notation for Hip Hop lyric transcription
December 1, 2005 1:58 PM   Subscribe

What is/could be a useful "notation" used to transcribe hip hop lyrics that would account for the lyrical delivery (i.e. syllables, accents, pauses, word length, etc.)...?

Viewing the lyrics from a hip hop track don't give any insight into the actually delivery of the lyrics, which are one of the most important (and IMO subconsciously overlooked) aspects of emceeing. While most music can be replicated from the transcribed notes and lyrics, hip hop transcription doesn't seem to contain enough information to allow reproduction or analysis of the complex patterns involved.
posted by iamck to Society & Culture (29 answers total)
I would think that transcribing the vocals into sheet music (standard musical notation) would do exactly that, at least as well as they do for rock/showtunes/whatever. The combination of notes and lyrics would definitely indicate the rhythm, the accents, the word length, pauses etc - as well as the actual pitch of the words.
posted by sluggo at 2:03 PM on December 1, 2005

I'll have a peek into that - I wasn't aware that sheet music notation could provide that level of detail.
posted by iamck at 2:07 PM on December 1, 2005

You could try to capture some of it using scansion. But if you really wanted a complete transcription, I would assume you would have to use traditional musical notation, techniques of phonological transcription used by linguists, or a combination of both.
posted by miniape at 2:08 PM on December 1, 2005

There's lots of modern compositions with notation for spoken or oddly sung lyrics. Look at vocal music from contemporary composers, like Peter Maxwell Davies. I remember one piece in particular called something like Diary of a Mad King... I think there's lots of notation for spoken word.
posted by kdern at 2:12 PM on December 1, 2005

Sorry - it's called Eight Songs for a Mad King. Couldn't find actual notation online... just this photo. But any decent university music library should have it.
posted by kdern at 2:14 PM on December 1, 2005

I've often wondered the same thing - thanks for this thread.
posted by agregoli at 2:22 PM on December 1, 2005

There are probably elements of a good rapper's flow that musical notation wouldn't cover adequately, either, such as slightly ahead or behind-the-beat timing, pitch inflections in otherwise spoken material, etc. Not to mention that a particular rapper's accent, along with voice qualities like gravelliness or nasalness form a big part of their audio appeal, as well. Eminem's bratty persona would sound kinda stupid if he had Chuck D's voice, for example.
posted by arto at 2:27 PM on December 1, 2005

I don't have an answer, but standard musical notation would look horrible. I doubt you'd want any representation of pitch; but if you did, you certainly wouldn't want it as a primary factor in organization. I've notated plenty of odd, lyrical situations, and there are creative ways to solve all the rhythmic issues you describe; but ultimately pitch determines the contour of the line, and for most rap lyrics that would be a waste of space.
posted by cribcage at 2:40 PM on December 1, 2005

A mix of musical notation and IPA?

'cause we got something in common with our extra chromosome,
pair-a wide-set eyes and a cro-magnon dome

posted by holloway at 2:42 PM on December 1, 2005

Standard notation would work fine, just as it works fine to notate percussion instruments of indefinite pitch.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:43 PM on December 1, 2005

Have to disagree with Sluggo a bit - sheet music can't provide that level of detail, typically. It gives you basic time, chord changes and can show accent and carry but beyond that, it's still the 'artist' that supplies the rest. Rap is tough because there is no standard per say. Most rap artists can't write music and therefore, adhere to no specific set of standards. Lack of musical progression and arrangement in rap also hinder things. Most rap tunes consist of a 4 measure beat, played over and over and over again until you want to vomit (but clearly traced back to African beats that do similar). The main thing that makes one rap song different from another is the vocalist. Take 20 rappers singing about bitches, hoes, gats and bling and - well, the only difference is the phrasing, the presentation. He/she alone decides the melody line and often times, it's not consistent through the song.

All of this is extremely hard to put to paper with any true effectiveness. It would be interesting to see the tablature on something like this though. Frankly, Karaoke does a better job of showing phrasing than sheet music..just follow the bouncing ball.
posted by j.p. Hung at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2005

Eminem's bratty persona

Courier new font?

I have seen rap lyrics written before on hip hop fan sites where they just write the lyrics exactly as heard - a mixture of normal english, ghetto slang, abbreviation and phonetic transcription, with a lot of apostrophes and overuse of commas,,,,,,and full places. It worked pretty well, but I can't seem to find any examples right now.
posted by fire&wings at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2005

Sprechtstimme is a style of spoken/sung music used by Schoenberg and others, and there are notation conventions for it. Can't find any just now.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:59 PM on December 1, 2005

I think a combination of standard music notation and scansion would do it. Also, while you wouldn't want to notate exact pitch, it might make sense to have something like a 3-line staff and note when the voice rises or falls. (A lot of rap music is "tonal" in the sense that the Chinese language is tonal -- pitch matters, even if it's not exact pitch.)
posted by speicus at 3:04 PM on December 1, 2005

I think a combination of standard music notation and scansion would do it.

Using musical notation would make scansion superfluous.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:15 PM on December 1, 2005

This is a very interesting question. I'd be very interested to hear which direction you decide to take on this.

I know not what of I speak (can't read music, etc.), but maybe you need some sort of superscansion: a system which accounts not only for the accenting of the rapped dialogue, but for the beat itself. That is, in some of the most interesting rap music, the cadence of the lyrics has a very complex (and not necessarily one-to-one correspondence) with the cadence of the beat. So perhaps if you could figure out a notation system that indicates these two (or more) differing rhythmic patterns, maybe you'd have a useful system ... ?

And, as fire&wings suggests, write out the lyrics as they sound, using slang and dialect. This would help immensely to convey a real sense of what the music sounds like.

BTW, have you spoken with any music scholars about this? Is there a university in your town with a forward-thinking music faculty?
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:26 PM on December 1, 2005

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see why regular sheet music is inadequate for this. What information does musical notation miss that needs to be incorporated?
posted by danb at 3:29 PM on December 1, 2005

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see why regular sheet music is inadequate for this.

It's not. There are plenty of spoken word pieces written with sheet music. Dr. Wu sounds like he wants a staff for the beat and a staff for the rap, which is perfectly possible, but unnecessary.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:35 PM on December 1, 2005

Conversation analysis has transcription conventions for this. Example of a common set of transcription conventions here (PDF). It includes pitch, lengthening of sounds, length of pauses, overlapping speech (maybe you have multiple rappers), etc.

The point in CA is to see how all those things affect our understanding and production of speech. Things like pitch and the length of pauses between conversational turns are actually really important, so they've developed a pretty good system for describing all those "little" things.

Those conventions could be combined with the sheet music to give more of a sense of how the lyrics combine with the rest of the music.
posted by heatherann at 3:44 PM on December 1, 2005

Conversation analysis has transcription conventions for this. Example of a common set of transcription conventions here (PDF).

Ok, I promise I'll stop repeating this, but nearly all of that information is already expressed in standard musical notation or could easily be expressed in sheet music with a bit of inventive notation.

The most significant element of a rap is rhythm, and the best way to notate that is with sheet music.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:55 PM on December 1, 2005

For teaching purposes, the best notation is most likely a recording.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:35 PM on December 1, 2005

I recommend Shatner Notation.
posted by Jairus at 5:24 PM on December 1, 2005

Using musical notation would make scansion superfluous.

It might make the syllables of emphasis more clear. Emphasis in speech and accents in music are very different.
posted by speicus at 7:25 PM on December 1, 2005

Emphasis in speech and accents in music are very different.

How so?
posted by ludwig_van at 7:51 PM on December 1, 2005

Standard musical notation doesn't seem to have any problems with it. It's fine at marking rhythm -- it's used for percussion instruments, for Pete's sake, and yes, it has something called grace notes. Combine standard musical notation with the IPA and you should be fine.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:28 PM on December 1, 2005

How so?

Well, this is not a hard and fast rule, but musical accents tend to emphasize the attack of a note, while speech emphasis just lends more importance to one syllable of a word. Syllabic emphasis is usually some combination of raised pitch, extended length and more volume and it's not easily notated by any single notational device. It's often unnecessary to notate because we generally do this unconsciously, but in rap music where diction is so important and unusual emphasis patterns are more common, it might be more useful.

But yeah, now that I'm thinking about it, IPA would make more sense to use than scansion.
posted by speicus at 9:42 PM on December 1, 2005

Well, this is not a hard and fast rule, but musical accents tend to emphasize the attack of a note

But it seems that you're using "accent" to refer to one particular symbol, when in fact there are many ways to notate musical phrasing and accents, including phrase markings, marcato, tenuto, staccato, time signatures, and various accent markings. See here.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:57 PM on December 1, 2005

Ludwig, I know about articulation. The point is that none of those symbols has the same exact meaning as speech emphasis. All words have at least one syllable we tend to emphasize and an accent marking on a note might not be enough to let someone know they should change their usual pattern of emphasis. For this, some kind of phonetic indication would be helpful. It's one of those gray areas where pronunciation and musicality overlap.

I don't know if we're being helpful anymore; this is just turning into a pissing contest.
posted by speicus at 12:44 AM on December 2, 2005

i haven't studied music theory so i don't know whether there's a real notation for speech delivery, but i use commas, semicolons, "..", underscores, underlining, capitalized letters and words, line breaks, ledger lines (to write words in/with 3 different heights), little drawings like in a sequencer (arranging in columns really helps)
posted by suni at 6:48 AM on December 2, 2005

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