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Tone painting of words goes at least as far back as Gregorian chant. Musical patterns expressed both emotive ideas and theological meanings in these chants. For instance, the pattern fa-mi-sol-la signifies the humiliation and death of Christ and his resurrection into glory. Fa-mi signifies deprecation, while sol is the note of the resurrection, and la is above the resurrection, His heavenly glory ("surrexit Jesus"). Such musical words are placed on words from the Biblical Latin text; for instance when fa-mi-sol-la is placed on "et libera" (e.g., introit for Sexagesima Sunday) in the Christian faith it signifies that Christ liberates us from sin through his death and resurrection.
Word painting developed especially in the late 16th century among Italian and English composers of madrigals, to such an extent that word painting devices came to be called madrigalisms. While it originated in secular music, it made its way into other vocal music of the period. While this mannerism is a prominent feature of madrigals of the late 16th century, including both Italian and English, it encountered sharp criticism from some composers. Thomas Campion, writing in the preface to his first book of lute songs in 1601, said of it: "... where the nature of everie word is precisely expresst in the Note ... such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous."
In Handel's melody, the word "valley" ends on a low note, "exalted" is a rising figure; "mountain" forms a peak in the melody, and "hill" a smaller one, while "low" is another low note. "Crooked" is sung to a rapid figure of four different notes, while "straight" is sung on a single note, and in "the rough places plain", "the rough places" is sung over short, separate notes whereas the final word "plain" is extended over several measures in a series of long notes. This can be seen in the following example:
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A modern example of word painting from the late 20th century occurs in the song "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. During the chorus, Brooks sings the word "low" on a low note. Similarly, on The Who's album Tommy, the song "Smash the Mirror" contains the line "Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise...." Each repetition of 'rise' is a semitone higher than the last, making this an especially overt example of word-painting.
"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen includes another example of text painting. In the line "It goes like this the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift, the baffled king composing hallelujah," the lyrics signify the song's chord progression.
Justin Timberlake's song "What Goes Around" is another popular example of text painting. The lyrics
descend an octave and then return to the upper octave, as though it was going in around in a circle.
In the chorus of "Up Where We Belong", the melody rises during the words "Love lift us up".
In Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "My Romance," the melody jumps to a higher note on the word "rising" in the line, "My romance doesn't need a castle rising in Spain."
In recordings of George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away from Me," Ella Fitzgerald and others intentionally sing the wrong note on the word "key" in the phrase "the way you sing off-key".
Another inverse happens during the song "A Spoonful of Sugar" from Mary Poppins, as, during the line "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," the words "go down" leap from a lower to a higher note.
Queen use word painting in many of their songs (in particular those written by lead singer Freddie Mercury). In "Somebody to Love", each time the word 'Lord' occurs it is sung as the highest note at the end of an ascending passage. In the same piece, the lyrics 'I've got no rhythm; I just keep losing my beat' fall on off beats to create the impression that he is out of time.