Frans Mossberg, (Institute of art and musicology at Lund University)


The continuum of modern ballad  – On words, voice and music

Studies of the music and performances of Olle Adolphson.

(Dissertation in musicology 2002)


The Swedish singer/songwriter Olle Adolphson (b. 1934) was highly successful in the world of Swedish entertainment in the sixties, and many of his songs has become evergreens in the country. He is associated with the swedish movement of folk- and popular singer/songwriters (troubadors) of the sixties and early seventies. His music shows influences of the french chanson, swedish folk song (folkvisa), english and american folk song, country music but also of european classical artmusic and religoius hymns, and ranges from popular sing-along type of songs to composed lied-pieces and choirmusic. He composes the scores of accom­paniment in his songs himself.

      Bred in an enviroment of artists and writers his goals were high from the outset, and the standard of his lyrics and music likewise. Adolphson´s artistic persona has always portraid a person of class in both artistic and social sense. He has never performed as the ragged outsider troubador as Cornelis Vreeswijk or Bob Dylan, appealing to the feelings of outsidedness in young generations.  This doesn´t mean, however, that his social conciense was less pronounced and many of his songs are protests against social injustices in modern society.


      Adolphson is associated, in regards of genre, with what in Sweden is called visa. The word cannot satifactory be translated into english. It resides somewhere in between folk song and contemporary folk song, ballad and general popular mesomusic. It basicly signifies a folk type of song, but has slightly different and more specialized connotations than the angloamerican concept.

      The genre visa connects to a general north european tradition of folk- and popular songwriting, that with various local variations is associated with singer/songwriters performing with voice and acoustic guitar (some times piano). Even if the visa often is recorded with backing of an instrumental ensemble or orchestra (today maybe a rockcombo), the typical visa-performer is generally not seen as one unit of  many, out of more or less equal musical units, in the way a member of a pop or jazz group is, but as a soloartist with a background accom-paniment.

      The visa is placed in a historical continuum as it carries with it both form and content from traditions of earlier generations. It also, however, imbodies another continuum, the continuum between speech and song in both performing practice as well as in constructive elements and form. A continuum with an axis that runs all the way from thought to lyric to melody and singing and the use of timbre and expression in performance.


      The lyrics of the visa are generally experienced as being the most important component, and are regarded as having a prominent position in relation to the music. Consequently much research on the visa, being in the sciences of linguistics and litterature, focuses solely on the lyrics, which has resulted in an unbalanced picture in academical discourse. Therefore I want to take a slightly different route and scrutinize the way the words and music mutually relate to each other in the material itself as well as study performance and perception from a musicological point of view.

      The choice of Olle Adolphson for these investigations is motivated by several things. Olle Adolphson on the one hand always composed with great care in detail, his music being inbetween art music and folksong, leading to precision in the linking of words and music. On the other hand the prominent placement of the vocal line in his recordings makes his music suitable for investigations of words, voice and song in performance. Another is that I experience his artistic persona as complex and interesting and his singing so enjoyable that I (as a researcher) can use it for analytic purposes (listening over and over again) without getting sick of it.


A general outline of the dissertation is as follows:

      After an introductory presentation of the artist I follow the continuum between speech and song by starting to study the relationship between word and melodic movement in the written lyric/song. I then continue by exploring how these results can be integrated in more general analysises of word and music. This is done through analysises of various aspects still in terms of the notated songs. As metrical aspects of relationships between the words and music of Adolphson is studied in an ongoing project at this time, at The Institution of Linguistics at Lund University, these are only lightly touched upon in my work.

After analyses of a number of pieces (including the complete mass) I follow the continuum to the actual recorded performances and, with the help of todays technology, look at components of the singing itself.


The four main chapters:


Between Chartbusters and Midnight Mass – Artistic persona and music

This chapter gives a chronological presentation of the career, musical output and artistic persona of Olle Adolphson, who was born in Stockholm in 1934, son of the famous swedish actor Edvin Adolphson and Mildred Folkestad, who´s father was a famous Norwegian painter by the name of Bernhard Folkestad. In the surroundings of an artistic home he early came in contact with the film- and musicindustry as well as with the Swedish Radio. As a boy he became friends with the actor and singer Sven Bertil Taube, son of Evert Taube, perhaps the most famous Swedish troubador in the 2000th century. The two boys travelled as youngsters to Spain where they studied the classical guitar in Malaga.

      Adolphson made his debute as a poet in 1954 and as composer, performing and recording artist in 1956. The first collection of songs published was named Aubade (1956) and included poetical songs with stylistic influences from old french troubador poetry, but also of Evert Taube´s songwriting. Aubade met with a mixed reception in the press which probably led Adolphson to sharpen his weapons, starting to write narrative songs with highly effective retorical means in both lyrics and music. Influences of the french chanson can be heard in the songs from the early sixties, especially in songs with lyrics by the poet and entertainer Beppe Wolgers. In these recordings the french musette-accordion accompanying the guitar and piano was used in the arrangements. Adolphson is together with the poet and translator Lars Forsell an important representative of the cosmopolitical influence in Swedish literary ballad in the sixties. These songs were performed in cabarets in Stockholm on stages which offered forums where political protests and observations could bes intergrated with schetches, humour and love songs. In the late sixties and early seventies Sweden, as well as the rest of Europe was strongly affected by leftwing political movements. These gave rise to musical enviroments where music with political agitatory ingredients in lyrics were given central positions. In Sweden this was called the progressive music movement (den progressiva musikrörelsen) ’progressive’ synonymous with what was experienced as progressivity in the favoured political sense at the time. In the spirit of this the swedish troubadors and vis-singers organized in a professional troubadors organization YTF (yrkestrubadurernas förening).

       Adolphson who did not want to join the political chorus, hesitated and went his own way, separating himself from both the contemporary popular music dominating the world of entertainment and from the leftwinged YTF. Instead he recorded the complete repertoire of Evert Taube (six albums) and began to interest himself in reflective lyrical writing, in old religoius hymns and in rewriting his songs for choral settings. This lead him in the eighties to complete an old project of writing a complete midnight mass in swedish language for mixed choir. The mass is not yet officially published on either recording or score.

      In the 90s Adolphson made yet another album Älskar inte jag dig då with new songs drawing from a mixture of old and new material on a minor label. His artistic persona, though somewhat contradictory, has throughout his career been connected with warmth and reflectiveness as well as with both integrity and respect.





The music of words

Amongst so called primitive ethnic groups, some north american indian tribes for example, it´s not unusual to regard songs that comes to someone in sleep as being associated with special powers. If someone has experienced being given a song in a dream this song will often be regarded as sacred in one way or another, and is usually also connected with the power to bring the owner/dreamer wealth and happiness. When Olle Adolphson claims that the song Trubbel (trouble) came to him in a dream as almost already concieved, and that he only hade to write it down (a task which actually took him three days) it seems that the old tale wasn´t too wrong; the song became a huge hit that has actually brought him both fame and fortune. In connection with this story Adolphson says that the text in some strange way came out of the melody almost readymade.

      This relates to the question of if connections in timbre can be identified between the movement of melody and the sounds of the lyrics in a song or visa that we in general experience as a ”good” one. I vagely pictured the changing flow of the vowelsounds in a sung text as a flow of different colours continuusly changing as the song went along. Whereas a musical instrument in general has one timbre that moves up and down in different pitches, the human voice in addition to this, also changes in tonecolor all the time with each new vowel sung and thus presents a whole ensemble of different timbres. This changing flow of tonecolour, as well the organization of vowels, plosives and fricatives in consonants can be experienced as more or less beneficial to the singer and help make some songs pleasant and easy to sing and others not.

      Together with the interplay between the metrical organization of the words, and the rythmic orginazation of the music, the organization of vowel sounds is an important part of the ”gestalt” of a song. This certainly holds true for easy-going songs of few words with a catchy refrain or hook phrase, but can also be applied to more poetic and wordy types of songs like a typical visa.

      A few researchers have pointed towards this earlier, but the subject has not been studied in detail. George W Boswell made a small and isolated investigation of relations between melody and formantfrequencies in an appalachian folk song.[1] He coarsly studied the parallells between the collected formantfrequencies and melody. His investigation was however not taken far enough to make more detailed observations.

      Johan Sundberg at the Voice Research Center in Stockholm KTH has studied preferences among musicians how they combine nonsensesyllables in improvised text singing.  His results indicated that choices often are meaningful (and showed tendencies to prefer vowels that are forwardly placed in connection with high tones and that a high first formant indicated an increased loudnesswhich influenced the choice of melodic direction.[2]

In his book Röstlära Sundberg presents a diagram of the formantfrequencies in swedish vowel sounds.[3]  This was another starting point for my study. The pattern of vowel sounds in the lyric of a song can be said to inherit a latent pattern of formantfrequencies. Even if these frequencies to a certain extent can change with sex, age and dialect, the main relations between the frequencies of the vowels can be seen as fairly constant.

      I wanted to see if any congruenses could be detected between the melody (F0) and the first and second formants (F1 and F2). To do this I wanted to use a song of Adolphson that did not have too many words, and which I subjectively experienced as a ”good” song. The first one I studied happened to be Ge mig en dag (Österlensvisan) a song built on the melody of an old brittish folksong called My Bonny lad, (recorded by Kathleen Ferrier in the fifties and by Isla Cameron and Anne Briggs among others.

      Commencing with measurements of formant frequencies in the swedish language made by Gunnar Fant in the late fifties[4] I compared the frequencies of F0 (the melody of the song) with the first and second formants, latent in the written words of the lyrics, and found that especially F2 to a large extent seemed to show a curve bearing similarities to the melody in the song. I then wanted to see in more detail where and when this seemed to occur. So I coded the move­ment of the melody and the formants differentiating between strong and weak beats, leaps, larger contours, unbroken sequenses of parallell movements, key phrases etc. By visualizing the flow of moving formants in diagrams I could identify where the parallell and contrary movements occured. I soon learned that this couldn´t (at least today) be meaningfully done automaticaly by a computer program, since only human knowledge and artistic feeling could determine what was musically significant or not. These were reqiured to filter out what was happening. Though rather long-winded I found the method at least preliminary rather rewarding. I carried out the study in detail using Östelensvisan as a modelanalysis, where every detail was discussed and commented and then moved on to observe a small number of other songs by Adolphson with reference-analysises of some songs by other well known composers of the visa.

      In Ge mig en dag 23 of 25 changes of pitch in the melody showed congruensess with one of the formants (92%). In leaps the scores were equally high73% with an average for 85% in three analyzed songs of Adolphson respectively 97% for Mikael Wiehe and 86% for Cornelis Vreeswijk. Parallell directions between F2 and F0 were found between the onsets of strong beats in 11 of 15 bars (73%) in Ge mig en dag. Long contours of parallells could be found in most examples, as well ”islands” of completely unbroken parallells of varying lengths. Naturally large parts with no significant parallellmovements at all were also found. Of course it´s crucial to raise the question how relations are to be interpreted between the parallelisms and the segments whith no parallell movements at all. One problem is that even if the scores for one verse of a song can be rather low clearly appearerent parallells can be found in certain phrases or certain parts of a phrase. This makes it natural to look at key phrases, refrains and repeated text segments. Another problem is how the countermovements are to be seen.

      It appeared that the results as a whole pointed towards different artists preferring slightly different strategies regarding which formant they seemed to follow at a given time. In the songs of Cornelis Vreesvijk who`s melodic style (rooted partly in french chanson and partly in american blues- and folkballads) in general included a larger part of tone repetitions, his paralleisms didn´t appear so much in the onsets of seperate tones, as in leaps and changes of direction in melody. A bit unexpectedly the younger Dylanesque rockballader Mikael Wiehe tended to lean on the first formant a bit more than the others especially in connection with leaps. Wiehe is definitely stylistically closest to a contemporary american song tradition of the three.

      All in all this investigation indicated a movement in the play of changing vowel sounds, between segments where this play is musically insignificant, and other segments where it is active and becomes estethically and musically significant components of a song.


The texts of music

The narratives in songlyrics can be seen as interacting with narrative elements of music in songs. One is supporting and being supported by the other. Songs seen as ”texts” and narratives is a thought explored by Simon Frith and others. In consequense the music in songs themselves can also be seen as texts comple­menting the lyrics.

      In this chapter the eufonic aspects studied in the previous chapter are integrated with general music analyses and the narrative aspects of music in the songs of Olle Adolphson. I analyzed a number of songs from different periods to be able to obtain more knowledge of ways and techniques used in the linking together of words and music.

      His early material shows ingredients of contrapunctual classical guitar pieces in the accompaniment. Even in the examples from his earliest period musically significant choices of vowel sounds show in correlates between formants and melody. Changes between different elements of musical form in the songs appeared in many cases to connect to shifts in mood or perspective in the lyrics. This could sometimes be seen in shifts between verse and refrain, but also in connection with harmonic shifts were melody moved for example from tonic to subdominant.

      Adolphson uses the alternate bass string tuning (the E-string of the guitar tuned down to D) in many songs, thus making use of the open string as a drone, at least in parts of songs. This puts the melody in a harmonic doubleexposure in that it moves through dissonances in relation to both underlying chord and drone. First with the general key of a song, secondly to the bassline and thirdly also to underlying main harmony, creating a double set of tensions that gives harmonic life to the song.

      Semantically important words and phrases, rethorically placed in cadenzas or other significant moments, proved to be a technique effectively mastered by Adolphson in many songs. In one visa in ¾ time, Sängen (The Bed), the placement of a relatively high second formant shifting to a lower one repeatedly occured between the weak beats, the two and three, seemed to form a certain pattern that actually made a neat little acompanying melody in itself.

      In the song Rim i Juli (Rhyme in July) Adolphson makes use of the old folkmelody Folia that has been used by many of the greatest composers in Western tradition including Corelli, Bach and Liszt. It has also been used by the eighteen century poet and songwriter Carl Michael Bellman in his Välment sorgesyn. Adolphson has recorded the melody in three different versions; Bellman´s Välment sorgesyn, his own earlier Folkvisa and Rim i juli.

      The different versions of the melody were compared and the use of lyrics and accompaniment in Rim i juli was analyzed. This melody was seen in a threefold harmonic relationship: to the bassline of Adolphson´s arrangemenet, to the key of the song and to the standard harmonzation of the song altered and sophisticated by Adolphson in his setting of it. One could see in this song that the shifting of different parts of the melody was answered in the lyrics with shifts of visual and emotional perspectives in the lyrics in a similar way to Sängen. The different timbres of the dominant vowels were seen to correspond to the semantic and emotional content of the lyrics. Shifts between open and closed vowels seemed to show musical significance in the song.


      The analysis of this simple song actually proved it to be something of a complex painting in word, rythm, timbre and tone.

      Olle Adolphson makes use of his solid knowledge of songwriting in his large work Mass in the swedish language though speaking a completely different musical tongue. The music of the mass is written to the translated original latin text, and shows intricate pairing of words and music, resulting in many emotionally and rethorically strong moments. One example of how words and music support each other, is a reoccuring move from vaguely ”hinting” a thought to a reaffirming of it, that  can be found in the different movements. This can be seen in the placements of words first on short weak beats, then graually changing to longer notes and strong beats. This resembles expressions in Adolphson´s own emphathic singing. The chapter concludes with an overview of Adolphson´s repertoire, built on a database of musical variables in three collections of his songs.


Voice and singing, on gestures of voice, singing and meaning

This last chapter begins with a dicussion about gestures of voice and the use of timbre in folk-like singing, fairly close to the speaking voice. Olle Adolphson uses his voice in a rethorically efficient but discreet way, dramatizing the material with small means. One of his specialities is to make use of tensions between the expression in the voice, the content in the lyrics and music. The raw material for this is built into the the lyrics of the song, in how they are combined with music, and is then realized in Adolphson´s recordings. He states that he often writes his songs so that they will provide a good material for him to sing.

      The voice gives us a reference to our experiences of tonal space in music, and of how we experience sensations of high and low and tension and relaxation. A certain singer´s use of his own voice will affect his way of contructing melodies. This will for instance show in significance he will give to musical tension for example where he himself experiences that his voice is strained in a musically meaningful way. This is briefly discussed in the introductory part of this chapter and a short overview follows of previous research of singing in popular music.

      Olle Adolphson has made several recordings of one of Evert Taubes most popular ballads Dansen på Sunnanö. The use of the voice in one of these recordings is analyzed and compared with Cornelis Vreeswijks recording of the same song. The recordings were firstly transcribed in a conventional manner to notation where the singer individual ways of altering the melody was roughly identified. Then the recordings were put into a sound processing software (Soundforge). One way of doing this was to initally compare a metrically correct midisignal to the performance, both depicted as waveforms in the software, to see how the performance differed from the score in timing. Later the waveform was used to identify variations in phrasing and dynamics

      As a whole I found the use of a software such as this, an effective way to get close to the material that gave access to more variations in the singing voice than I expected. It thus worked well as tool for analysis of a recorded sung performance.

      The software Speech analyzer from the SIL organization was used to get closer towards a detailed level. With this software both frequency curves and spectograms could be drawn. These made it possible to visualize variations in frequencies in the voice in detail, something that helped me gain knowledge of how Adolphson used his voice in terms of intonation and major and minor glissandi, showing such technical specialities as how he could rethorically underline the meanings in certain words. Put in the context of a certain preunder-standing of the artistic personas and esthetics of the two artists, these tools proved effective to get close to their perfomances, and to what constituted their singing styles and the differences between them.

      Following this comparative study, exerpts from different phases of Adolphson´s career were briefly observed in similar ways. Adolphson´s voice can change from agitato to softly phonated pianissimo in the same songs, according to the content in the lyrics. Rythmic storytelling songs are vitalized by passages of marked tremulants (shown as ”washboards” on the spectogram) and marked opening of the glottis even in words/phrases with wovel openings, while moments of softer lyrical content can be sung with leakage and fairly limited content of actual tone content in the vocal cords. High subglottal pressure in connection with tense and restricted passage of air was used in many places by Adolphson to optimize the expressive content in a song.


Putting the content of different sections in the study in relation to each other, it can be seen that Olle Adolphson´s artistic persona, songs and performances interact in a web of intricate and close relationships between words and music.

On a general level it can be seen that the melodic line in song is accompanied by melodic tendencies of the timbres in the words, as well as melodic tendencies in prosody and in patterns of stress in single words. This means that we are actually dealing with four different levels of ”pulling” towards shifts in frequency in a song. And this without regard for whats going on in the background musical arrangement! Further we can see that relationships also arises between these changes in timbre and frequency and various rythmic patterns such as pulse, rythm and meter both in melody line and in different voices of an arrangement. Remember that we are still speaking in strictly musical terms completely disregarding the semantic and expressive content in the lyrics!


      All this points at an intricate interplay in a very complex web of relationships, when we talk about of relations between words and music. Of course, some of them are more prominent than other in different circumstances, but the complexity in itself certainly has to be taken into account.

      When discussing performances the voice must be included and we have to talk about words, voice and music. In this connection an even broader spectrum of observations are accessible.

             I have, in this study, been able to make some preliminary observations of the voice in the context of words and music in Olle Adolphson´s visor and I hope by this to point out some possible paths for researchers with curiosity for the elusiveness of the relationships between words and music in song.

                                                                       Frans Mossberg 2002

[1] Boswell, Yearbook of Folk Music Council nr9, 1977.

[2] Sundberg, J. "Musical significance of musicians syllable choice in improvised nonsense text singing. Phonetica 1994.

[3] Sundberg, J. Musikens ljudlära 1978:76

[4] Fant, G. "Modern instruments for acoustic studies of speech", Acta Polytechnica Scandinavica 1958. and Fant, G. Acoustic analysis and synthesis of speech with applications to swedish. Stockholm 1959.