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

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
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.
(music curator)


  1. Francis Em
    October 17, 2009 at 10:44am
    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."
  2. Leigh Harrison
    October 18, 2009 at 4:16pm
    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 www.leighharrison.com
  3. Celia
    October 22, 2009 at 5:12am
    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.
  4. Michael Zapruder
    October 23, 2009 at 2:30pm
    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
  5. Roland
    October 29, 2009 at 12:47pm
    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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