Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why Lyrics Matter

I am of the belief that lyrics matter.  Although there are times when I love a good instrumental, be it rock, classical, or jazz, when the subject of songs comes up, I am of the opinion that I prefer the types that have lyrics most often, and I tend to value those whose lyrics I particularly appreciate.  Good lyrics make songs good because they are capable as standing alone without music, but are supported well by the music.  As opposed to songs in which the music makes the lyrics stand out, there is no risk of unintentionally remembering lyrics you don't like when the thing you like best is the lyric.

I saw a documentary of the 70s rock band called Kansas recently on TV, and a moving statement made about one of their songs Carry On My Wayward Son, was that every part of the song was itself a hook - the intro, the melody, the solo, the verses, the chorus, etc. as well as the philosophical lyrics.  Indeed it seems to be a song where the whole thing arguably hooks you into wanting to continue to listen to it all the way through.  It's rare that a song fires on all cylinders like that.

Fluff and filler without meaning or intrigue can be present in a good song, no doubt.  Often there are only portions of lyrics you like, just as with the music.  Great songs however seem to have memorable lyrics that move you to feel certain emotions and have the power to provoke thoughts in addition to having pleasant music.

A part of me agrees with people who say the lyrics don't matter.  Particularly with danceable music, if you love the instrumental hooks and the groove, you don't care what the lyrics are about, nor do you even notice much of the time anything beyond a catchy line or phrase from the chorus - usually the title.  Let's face it, lyrics aren't always the most memorable part of a song you like, but another part of me nonetheless believes that they are important.

Your interpretation is unique, and you create your own images, maybe from subliminal messages, or maybe from indirect things the subliminal messages lead you to think about.  Even with words that just sound cool and are not meant to have a particular meaning, words intended to flow together with other words well, or words strung together in a stream-of-consciousness style that conjure memories or visions in one's mind are all making contributions to the song's likability.

When music videos were a new thing, it was like sensory overload.  Sometimes the video was so interesting, you found yourself focused on it so much, you almost didn't notice much about the song.  It can arguably detract from the music listening experience.  Maybe in the future we'll have robot massages or even smell maker devices that accompany music, who knows?  Watching a live band is exciting, but sitting in a room with your eyes closed while listening to a record is the best way to enjoy music for me.  And music with lyrics is just enough take me away to a happy place.

Instrumental breaks within songs with lyrics give you the joy of instrumental music along with that of music with words.  That's why I usually include such a passage when recording music myself.  It gives the listener time to reflect on the words so far, and get lost in thought for a few moments.

As a songwriter, you can make lyrics fit music, or you can make music fit lyrics.  Every single time, however, it's a little of both, depending on how you think of it.  Maybe Bob Dylan has the lyrics typed out ahead of time, and maybe Paul McCartney has the music completed first, however, when fitting one to the other to form a song that has both lyrics and music, some of the making it fit work happens in Bob or Paul's head.  This means that whether putting pen to paper or finger to guitar string, there is thought involved which serves as a chicken/egg scenario in my way of thinking.

Sometimes it's obvious when listening to music the lyrics fall short in comparison to the music, or vice versa.  Either can be disappointing.  I don't know if you can call it a poem or not if you're just reading lyrics without music, and certainly a karaoke track of a song without the singing of lyrics would qualify as music.  When both can stand alone and be considered good, then when they are blended together, you've got greatness.

Subjectivity trumps universal truths when it comes to what makes a good song good.  Computer programs can only analyze so much about hit songs, and these analytics don't enable them to automatically create hit songs.  Your opinion counts, your taste matters, and your tastes change based on many factors.  Maybe unconsciously, a song's lyrics have an effect on you even when you can't recite them from memory.

Conversely, it's easy to recite verbatim terrible meaningless lyrics from songs you've heard before.  Whether you wanted to or not, they get stuck in your head.  Often I find a classic rock radio station while in my car and realize I know all of the words of some dreadful song from the 80s that was popular when I was in high school or something.  It's hard to admit, but these have other things going for them musically that made them memorable, despite them making you cringe.  So bad, they're memorable, perhaps.

The introductory overview of the wikipedia entry for the word "lyrics" has a couple sentences that prove my point:
The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of expression.
Some come right out and say it, while others allow you to guess at the intended meaning.  Some don't make much sense, but just sound great with the music.   Some spark your imagination of what a music video for the song would look like.  Some are like hearing someone tell you a great story.  Some make you see the world in a different way, while others sink in from repetition alone.

You can easily study, read, play a game, or just think your own thoughts while instrumental music is in the background.  It's not so easy when the song has lyrics.  When songs have lyrics, you tend to take notice, listen more intently, and have the opportunity to be more fulfilled as a result.  This is why I think lyrics matter.  There is potential for more gratification.