Paying Attention to a Song's Punctuation
The punctuation in a song tells the singer where the big thoughts are. As with written and spoken text, periods indicate complete thoughts and commas point to lists and auxiliary phrases. Punctuation indicates an opportunity to take a breath, so a song’s punctuation can help you with phrasing and interpretation.
A series of questions in a song provides you with a different task than a series of commas. In your everyday speech, the inflection of your tone of voice usually goes up when you ask a question and goes down when you make a statement.
In singing a song that has a list with a series of commas, you want to reflect that continuing thought. You can practice this by taking a breath in the middle of a sentence when you’re speaking. Notice how the inflection of your voice stays up. That same idea happens when you sing; the inflection of your voice tells the listener that you’re continuing on the same train of thought.
In contrast, a period needs a sense of finality. Say the following two sentences: You did that. and You did that? Notice the change in the tone of your voice when you read the question. This difference of inflection helps the listener know that you’ve just made a statement or asked a question while singing.
Breathing in a series of commas takes a little planning. You can breathe after every comma, but you may not need to. You can take a slight pause, just like you do in speaking when you pause in the middle of a sentence but don’t take a breath. A series of questions is similar: Breathe where you need to, and use a slight pause in places where you don’t need a breath.
You can breathe after a comma as long as you remember that your train of thought doesn’t stop as you take the breath. The same train of thought continues, just as when you take a breath between phrases in a conversation.
The places where you don’t want to breathe are between syllables in a word, in the middle of a grammatical phrase that needs to be kept as one thought, and between a noun and modifier. Look at the text to determine where you take a breath while speaking the words. If it doesn’t sound logical to breathe when you’re speaking the lyrics, try to find another place to take the breath when you sing.
If you’re struggling with a phrase because you need a breath, cheat the last note of a phrase instead of trying to hurry in on the first note of the next phrase. If the last note is a half note, you can cut the note off a half beat early to catch your breath.