is the making of words more beautiful by means of music; the singing voice is
only one of the means to this end.
Half of interpretation lies in having the courage to leave things alone; words are beautiful in themselves.
The singer's soul is his breath; the less he bothers his breath, the better friend it is to him..."
Harriet Plunket Greene
"The making of words more beautiful by means of music..."
This is doubtless the truth - but is it the whole truth?
With what we call "songs", it probably is true. A song is a poem that is not recited, but sung. And it may - but need not always - be accompanied by a musical instrument or ensemble. So we have the beauty of the music added to the beauty of the words.
But we talk of "singing" in other contexts, too. Remember "Moby Dick", Herman Melville's classic book of whaling in the days of sail? The lookout, when he espied that tell-tale spout, did not call or shout - he sang out, "Thaaaaaaaar she bloooooows!" Because, although the wind in the rigging and the gurgling of the ship's wake would have drowned out his consonants, what reached the deck below was an unmistakeable "aaaaaaaaaaaa - oooooooooo!" Army Sergeants-Major on the parade ground also communicate entirely by means of vowels punctuated by short, unintelligible barks. But the the long-drawn vowels in "Leeeeft..." and "Riiiiiight...", combined with the short bark that is all of the word "...turn!" that will carry over a distance in the open air, form unambiguous signals - at least in the context of army drill.
Singing the vowels of what you would otherwise say or shout makes them carry farther and makes them less susceptible to acoustic interference. Priests in vast gothic cathedrals before the days of PA systems intoned the mass to make it more or less intelligible, or at least audible.
What of opera? Is it easier to hear a singer singing over an orchestra than to hear an actor project his speaking voice in a quiet theatre? A moot point!
I think the function of the music that accompanies the words in this case is to heighten the emotional impact of the scene. Words may be sad or comical or serene, if you think about their meaning - but music is sad, comical or serene without your thinking about it. It conveys feelings directly. At least, I get this impression when I hear the early Italian operas of Claudio Monteverdi - interestingly, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, whose words and marble statues, respectively, often have a very direct, emotional effect. The cantatas and oratorios of Bach and Handel mount a similar two-pronged attack on the emotions of the listener. With operas of the classical period and later, one tends (or at least, I tend) to have the feeling that they were composed because one had to present musical dramas in opera houses - and to "beautify" the voices of operatic tenors and sopranos!
"Song" is the art of singing, but "the song" is a specific form of composition. The use of the same word for the art of singing and this particular form of vocal music hints that the song is the definitive form of sung expression.
What is a song?
In its most basic form, it consists of lyrics and a tune. In its more elaborate forms, it is accompanied by some instrument or ensemble, the instrumentation depending on the cultural environment. The lyrics, taken by themselves, invariably have the form of a poem - again, the details depend on language, epoch and cultural environment.
Lyrics - poetry - is there a connection with the term "lyrical poetry"?
Yes, there is!
We have borrowed the term "lyrical" (like many literary terms, such as "epic" and "dramatic") from the Ancient Greeks. It is derived from the name of a musical instrument - the lyre - that was used in Antiquity to accompany singing. So a "lyrical poem" was originally a poem that was intended for singing.
In the intervening generations since the Renaissance and the application of Greek terms to forms of literature throughout Europe, lyrical poetry has been written, printed and read. Is some modern forms, the appearance of the poem in print has been at least as important as the rhythm of the words when recited. Some poetry still "sings" when you read it aloud, but much modern lyrical poetry does not. Why should it, when it is meant to be read silently in the privacy of one's home?
But who reads poetry books today?
There are so many other forms of entertainment - first the gramophone, then the radio, the record-player, the cassette recorder and now the CD and MP3 player! I would venture to say that what started with the gramophone and has continued through the other mechanical, electrical and electronic media is a trend back to the origins of lyrical poetry!
People still revel in hearing "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd" (to quote Alexander Pope, an English poet of Queen Anne's day) - but now they hear it in the form of recorded songs. John Lennon, the Beatle, was regarded by many as one of the best English lyricists of the 1960s, and I have heard a German professor of literature refer to Bob Dylan, the protest singer, as one of the "great American poets". At a time when the editions of poetry books numbered thousands of copies, the poetry of these men was heard, understood and appreciated by millions, because they were songwriters, and reunited what for the Ancient Greeks had belonged together - words that expressed emotions, and music to carry them!
So, in songs, music not only makes words more beautiful - it makes them available, and actively carries them to their recipients!