Stages of Grief (5? 7?) and Interpreting a Sad Song

I find that a lot of my students, both past and present, love to sing sad, heart-breaking songs of woe and loss. It goes with the emo-ness of youth, I think.

Personally, I gravitate toward funny (some might say nigh-ridiculous) songs, especially in programming. People say comedy is hard. I think tragedy is hard. At least, tragedy that isn’t just superficial. 

Which is often the problem with interpreting sad songs. They’re just sad sad sad from beginning to end. Come on! “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables starts out with “I dreamed a dream in time gone by – when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving…” Nowhere in there is the word, “DAMMIT.” The first time we get the sense that things didn’t pan out the way she wanted is at “But the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder – as they tear your hopes apart, as they turn your dreams to shame.” 
And even then, “He slept a summer by my side – he filled my days with endless wonder.” This is a fond memory, at least until: “Then he was gone when autumn came.” That’s where sadness comes to stay for the rest of the piece. Not earlier. But if you see the movie, the song pretty much slams you in the face with a shovel of sadness all the way through. (Which I don’t blame Anne Hathaway for – I blame the director.)

A few years ago, I asked a student to think about applying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to a song.  These are

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Not all of these stages may be present, and not all in equal amounts. I’ve used this device a lot and it seems to be helpful.

The five stages of grief have since been updated to seven in today’s psychological circles (and some say they’re completely invalid in the first place). The current stages are:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt 
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression (reflection/loneliness)
  5. Upward turn
  6. Reconstruction/working through (in another site, it was called “testing”)
  7. Acceptance and hope
Clearly, these have been fleshed out a bit more. Depending on what you’re working on, the basic five may be enough for you to apply.  You might want to pick from the seven – does your song involve survivor’s guilt (“Empty chairs at empty tables”)? Shock and denial (“I’m still hurting”)? Making a choice to change your life and move on (“Astonishing”)?

If you’re singing a song of woe, especially one that is really well-known and overdone, how can you apply contrasts using these ideas? And how will you implement those contrasts? With dynamics? With a change in registration? With a change in tempo? A physical change? Where do you wail? Where are you curled up in a vocal fetal position? Where might you sing through clenched teeth (without hurting yourself, of course)?

What can you do to give life and depth to a song that might otherwise be on the “Do not sing” list? 

If you feel stuck, go through the song and see where these steps could apply.

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