Play Listen Repeat Vol. 43

Q: Did Music Discover Emotion? And What Does that Have to Do with Song Lyrics?
A: “God Only Knows”

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The Problem with Song Lyrics
As a songwriter, I think of song lyrics as a specialization within creative writing. Unlike other kinds of creative writing, song lyrics can be excellent even when the writing (taken on its own) isn’t particularly good. It’s a feel you have to have, it’s a sort of creative half-writing. It’s leaving things out. It’s a kind of writing which in some ways is more like conversation than literature.
This is pretty apparent when you take a lyric out of the context of its song. On the page or read out loud, a song lyric will rarely work. The music, too, generally depends on the presence of the lyric to have its full effect.
Separated from each other, the elements of a song usually fall shy of what we consider true literature or music.
The Conundrum
Now obviously, I believe that songs are the equal of any other art form. I write them, after all. But exactly how such excellence is fashioned from such humble materials – the alchemical quality of songs – is hard to see. It is perhaps the central mystery and attraction of songwriting, and it is of perennial fascination to me.
It’s not essential to understand these things in order to do them well, and it’s surely not possible to ever fully understand them, but it can’t hurt to try; and yesterday I came across a quote that may just offer a missing piece of the puzzle. It’s from What is Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music,” by Philip Alperson, and it says:

“”emotion” can, in effect, be defined as what music articulates, much as “reality” can be best defined as that which the concepts and grammars of languages can capture.”

(italics mine)


Emotion is “That Which Music Articulates”?
The idea is that, just as the discovery of a mathematical order in music led to larger ideas about a mathematically ordered universe; it was music that enabled us to discover, perceive, understand and differentiate our emotional states. At least in the beginning, music may have functioned as a kind of emotional mirror, reflecting back to us our feelings so we could see them more clearly. In the process, it allowed us to name those feelings.
This suggests that without music, we might not know the difference between, say, fondness and love, or anger and hatred. A radical notion, to say the least, and one with something to say about songs as well.
Song Lyrics Only Point the Way
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Song lyrics may be free to be understated because the words don’t actually carry the emotions that they seem to. But this is seriously counterintuitive, because we identify so strongly with the singer and the words. It seems like that’s most of what most of us hear! How could that not be the expressive part of the song?
Well, if emotion really is shaped and understood through music, then the words in a song only have to function as pointers. They seem for all the world to express emotion (of course they express some), but perhaps they only indicate the names of the emotions that the music is expressing. That may be enough (and if they did more than that, wouldn’t they then would work just as well on the page as they do in the song?).
“God Only Knows”
How does this play out in the real world? Well my favorite example for this, and a lyric I think about frequently, is by the great Brian Wilson:

I may not always love you
but long as there are stars above you
you never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it

As creative writing, this reads more like a Hallmark card than anything else; and yet it’s one of the best song lyrics I can think of. The melody, especially in the last line when he sings “SURE about it,” is so purely, fully expressive of the meaning of the words that it seems impossible to imagine how those words could be improved.
In fact, better writing, in the sense of writing that stands on its own, would probably divide the listener’s focus, and thus paradoxically actually be worse writing.
Put that in your sandbox and smoke it. And maybe listen to God Only Knows Radio while you do.
Michael
(music curator)

Pandora

The Pandora Team http://www.pandora.com/

15 thoughts on “Play Listen Repeat Vol. 43

  1. At “SURE about it”, not only does the melody reach a high point, but the harmony takes a dramatic and unexpected turn (bass line moving down — contrary motion). Magical stuff!

  2. I agree….I have a question where can we request a song? Is it possible because it should be. I’m dieing to hear bang bang by the squeeze but its not on pandora.

  3. This site sucks. You have way too many adds. I don’t want to have to see a 15 second add every time I change channels. Also, I don’t think there should be a restriction on how many songs you can skip. Also, this site has done a poor job of matching my musical taste. This is a total scam.

  4. “If you should ever leave me
    Though life would still go on, believe me
    The world could show nothing to me
    So what good would living do me…”
    lyrics just don’t get any more real, and raw. Ahh, amazing.

  5. Interesting article, but I have to disagree with the main points.
    While it’s true that a song lyric doesn’t have to stand alone as a poem, I don’t think a trite sentimental verse like the one quoted somehow becomes magically “great” when combined with the music.
    Also, music that doesn’t work on it’s own is not worth listening to imo, since there is so much music with lyrics that’s wonderful music regardless of the lyrics. I hate songs where the music is just a vehicle for the words; otherwise not of interest. To me that’s just lazy songwriting.
    Most of the songs of Jimi Hendrix for example, combine interesting lyrics with great music. Not every lyric was great: Foxy Lady is a fun song but the poetry doesn’t amount to much. But he also wrote evocative lyrics like “Axis Bold as Love”, which is quite thought provoking.
    While the lyrics and music do help each other, they also are quite strong on their own.
    The statement “”emotion” can, in effect, be defined as what music articulates, much as “reality” can be best defined as that which the concepts and grammars of languages can capture.” is absurd.
    A definition should tell you something about it’s subject. The fact that music (sometimes) articulates emotions tells you nothing about the actuality of any emotion.
    To see how weak this way of defining things is, try applying it to other things. Imagine a person who spends a lot of time at home. Can they be defined as “that which a house contains”? Can you define peanut butter as “that which a sandwich contains”? What do those “definitions” tell you about the person or the peanut butter. Nothing.
    The fact that we attempt to describe reality using language tells you nothing about the nature of reality itself. The statement that language can “capture” reality is nonsense.
    At best you can suggest some aspect of it, but to someone who has never experienced a sunset, or an electric shock, or sex, words will never “capture” the raw reality. The only reason we can communicate in any meaningful way with words, is that we have shared experiences that words merely evoke. Words are cool, but we shouldn’t become so enamored of them that we forget the fact that they are not reality.

  6. hey greg -
    thanks reading the post, and for your well-considered points.
    just a few reactions for what it’s worth:
    you wrote:
    I don’t think a trite sentimental verse like the one quoted somehow becomes magically “great” when combined with the music.
    response:
    I’d say that as writing, it remains bad, but as a lyric it’s very good. to miss that is to misunderstand something fundamental about songs I think.
    you wrote:
    I hate songs where the music is just a vehicle for the words; otherwise not of interest. To me that’s just lazy songwriting.
    response:
    I submit Leonard Cohen’s songs as exhibit A-Z. the music is necessarily somewhat featureless – that makes room for the words to do more.
    you wrote:
    The statement “”emotion” can, in effect, be defined as what music articulates, much as “reality” can be best defined as that which the concepts and grammars of languages can capture.” is absurd.
    A definition should tell you something about it’s subject. The fact that music (sometimes) articulates emotions tells you nothing about the actuality of any emotion.
    To see how weak this way of defining things is, try applying it to other things. Imagine a person who spends a lot of time at home. Can they be defined as “that which a house contains”? Can you define peanut butter as “that which a sandwich contains”? What do those “definitions” tell you about the person or the peanut butter. Nothing.
    The fact that we attempt to describe reality using language tells you nothing about the nature of reality itself. The statement that language can “capture” reality is nonsense.
    response:
    I really like your arguments here – however I think you’re missing the crucial point of that statement. the idea is that we named our various emotions (which of course all existed beforehand), and in a sense we discovered them, through music. this doesn’t say emotions ARE music, and it doesn’t say music created emotions – it only says that music was the experience through which we discovered emotions.
    another way to look at it is that the fact that emotions can be defined as “that which music articulates” doesn’t mean that it should be defined that way. it’s just a way of pointing to an insight – it’s a rhetorical device.
    in any case, thanks very much for such great comments, and for reading the posts. these aren’t really issues and questions about which it’s possible to be definitive (which is part of the appeal)….
    best,
    –Michael
    (music curator)

  7. some thing work for some however my preferences amount to thing have experienced in life enjoyable to see others simmular 80′s speed metal the sht

  8. With respect, sometimes lyrics are too deep! As i do music to, i like to listen to the music itself. i do not want that the lyrics get too much of my attention. But sure it depends what kind of music do we make!
    I think magic is when you listen to a song with lyrics off a language you don’t understand. In this case.. the lyrics are the music! And the music itself is viewed from another perspective!
    tc

  9. Hi Michael:
    Great concept for an article. I received it through the ASCAP member newsletter. My husband writes music, plays trombone and leads a vintage jazz band. His band often presents themed “shows” about significant figures in jazz or popular songwriting, for which I do the research and writing.
    Your article, while well-founded and well-stated, seemed to fall short. You did not address the craft of popular songwriting going back to Tin Pan Alley and the American songbook. Most of this music was written strictly for profit — popular music always will be — and remains unquestionably the model to which all future song writing must be compared. No one denies their designation as “standards”.
    Going back to your article: You finished off the Brian Wilson example by stating, “…better writing, in the sense of writing that stands on its own, would probably divide the listener’s focus, and thus paradoxically actually be worse writing.” Here you seem concerned with the idea of balance; that if one or the other is “too good” the song overall lacks quality because it makes us prefer one aspect of the song over another. Here you do lyric writers a disservice by (1) permitting them to be lazy and (2) assigning, perhaps unintentionally, greater importance to the music. Just because music is able to stand alone, must it always stand above?
    Nearly every song from the first half of the 20th century had a lyricist as well as a composer. The lack of one was unacceptable, an affront to the needs of the listening, buying public. When one hears standards played today, and too often this is without benefit of vocalization, we know the words so well that they are indeed a part of the experience whether heard or not. They have provided the song with mood and structure, something the human intellect reaches for in music by default. That is the balance we should be seeking in a song. A lyric written well — that is, not merely obligingly but literately, attractively, aspiringly — gives an identity to the melody and makes it unique to all other melodies that might also fit the meter of that lyric.
    When you think of the Brian Wilson lyric you feel something in particular because you know it so well. I don’t happen to know the song at all. Yet even with your clear enthusiasm reading the lyric doesn’t make me want to hear the song. That does the song a disservice. Because Ira Gershwin wrote his words more cleverly, does that degrade our response to “Someone to Watch Over Me”? I should say not. To read the lyric by itself only whets the appetite. That’s not to say that lyrics should necessarily stand alone, akin to poetry. But neither should they be “dumbed down” to any degree.
    Thanks for a great read!
    Shelley in Louisville

  10. Appreciate your brief article, without title, though. A fine point I can offer is that the words to a song is the “lyric.” A lyric and its music are a marriage, for sure. But, as has been well established, the music of a song alone can, and should, stand the test of time by itself – songs from the 20s and 30s still resonate – without their lyrics.
    As a character says in the Seven Year Itch, “it must be classical, there aren’t any words.”

  11. In a sense you’re all right, — even as you all have different points of view — much like the six blind men and the elephant. Music does show and reflect emotions, but it surely was something that existed (even in its earliest forms, like drumming on tree trunks or via primitive reed flutes) long after emotions first existed. But the important thing is that music does reflect our emotions, and it resonates in the center of the limbic system in the brain, just like smells do (the odors of a barnyard, the fragrances of a garden) and they can conjure powerful emotions in us.
    And, as a songwriter (and teacher of songwriting) I think one of the most important things to remember about the nature of lyrics and melody is that both can stand on their own — if they are good. A good lyric is like a fine poem, and a good melody will be pleasurable to listen to, even without words. On the other hand, sometimes one may need to other to “pillow” it, or support it when one or the other is not strong. But it’s always best when there’s a good lyric paired with a good melody.
    Lastly (in my humble opinion) a song does not necessarily capture “reality” (whatever that is…)– but SHOULD capture the reality of the author….and, if he/she is fortunate, the song will resonate in the listener’s mind because it seems to capture their “reality” also.
    Leigh Harrison
    http://www.leighharrison.com

  12. I think that Pandora.com should have at least some songs that are in other languages than English. I’ve noticed that even the songs you have by BoA are in English,even though the songs that most of my friends and I have by her are in Japanese. Most of the songs on my iPod are actually in Japanese. One of the Japanese artists I highly recommend would be Miyavi.

  13. first of all, thank you all so much for the excellent comments. I so appreciate these kinds of thoughtful and well-expressed responses.
    @Shelley in Louisville
    You seemed to read my post as arguing in favor of bad lyrics. Far from it.
    I was merely trying to explain why certain lyrics work so well even when they are not “good writing.” It certainly was not an aesthetic manifesto saying that all the best lyrics are badly written!
    In my tastes, and in my own songs, I appreciate excellent lyric writing – I just have a broad understanding of what that might be.
    if it was through the development of music that we developed emotional self-awareness, then perhaps that provides an explanation for why lyrics can work well even if they are unremarkable as literature. that was the essence of my post, and I found that concept to be a good missing piece of the puzzling effectiveness of otherwise very unremarkable lyrics.
    as for the brian wilson song, you really should listen to it (it’s actually a Beach Boys song). it is extraordinary, not just for the melody, which appears to be one for the ages, but also for the instrumental arrangement.
    if you haven’t explored Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, you are missing out on what most critics evaluate as a work of genius, not to mention an important document in the history of American popular song. Since you are clearly interested in American popular music, you should be interested in this.
    and lastly, I am a huge fan of the American popular songs to which you refer. I suspect that “Lush Life” is, if not the greatest song ever written, certainly the equal of any song, past present or future.
    in my mind, that is really the best a song can do.
    @Francis Em – does the music of “This Land is Your Land” really stand alone without the words? if not, does that matter? can a song be better in any real way than This Land is Your Land?
    I don’t think there are any immutable prescriptions for the combination of words and music – there are many ways to combine them well, and in different contexts, different emphases are appropriate.
    @Leigh Harrison – I don’t think I’m comfortable saying that anything in songwriting is “always best.” it’s like writing dialog for a screenplay: what is good for a buddy cop movie isn’t good for a serious drama, and so on. as far as I can tell, it’s all contextual.
    @celia -
    thanks for the suggestion – duly noted and we’ll see what we can do about that!
    cheers and thanks again for the great comments,
    mz

  14. Well… as a lyricist. I have to say that a song with out the poetry, and the floetry of the lyrics is just a fine melody. When I do a cover of an popular tune on a piano at a lounge I play at now and then. I’ll the play the music only and with my flair for arrangements I’ll bring a out a whole different emotion in that peice.It takes on another meaning. I feel it ,and when I look up and catch the attention of an couple indrench in conversation its magic. Or the man’s face behind the scotch on the rocks looks over the rim and and smiles with a nod as he sings silently the chorus to the song. Emotion is the notion. I perform a song I wrote. At gigs I do at coffee houses with me and my acoustic guitar. Its called Greyhound Gypsy Blues (copy write). It starts off like this. If you wake up in the morning and I’m not there. Dont hold your head down in dispair. Just reconize the beautiful night we had. Cause you see here baby I was born a gypsy which means I must die a gypsy too. I live for the morning sun to the setting evening. Now when I wrote this song my wife said “Thats rude!” ” You’re not a gypsy lover any longer you’re married now. ” Write something else.” You see; I stirred an emotion. A disatisfied one. The lyrics are fictional (to a degree LOL) But yet I stirred an emotion. I’m painting a picture of greyhound bus driver. Very simple cords. The caffeine fiends love it, and some of my loyals sing the chorus. You see here baby I’m just a greyhound gypsy, just a grey hound man, I got to keep going I need you to understand. It works.

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