Music Mondays: The Importance of Lyrics. Listening as a Writer.

It’s been awhile, but welcome to a belated Music Monday! (If you’re new to Music Mondays, welcome! It’s where I talk about music from a writing perspective.)

lyrics1

“Marc Morgan album recording, LowSwing studio, Berlin, 2011-01-25 22 27 16” by Marc Wathieu from Huy, Belgium – LowSwing studio. Uploaded by clusternote. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Instrumental Music

Before I hit the age of musical self-discovery (circa. middle school), I listened to whatever my parents listened to. We listened to a lot of easily-appreciable classical music at this time: Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven. Opera not being the most comforting to our ears, we preferred the symphonies, concertos, and solo piano works.

Foreign Music

Growing up to lyric-less music, melody was what charmed my ears. When I finally started hunting for music on my own, I fell deeply in love with Japanese pop music. Japanese pop music is very lyrical, with ear-catching, almost Mozartean melodies that are easy to grasp. The melodies of Japanese pop/rock bands (L’Arc~en~Ciel, Do As Infinity, and of course anime soundtracks) captured me instantly, despite my not understanding a word of Japanese. Later on, when I fell hard for rock, the power ballads of X Japan got my fist pumping and my vocal cords soaring along with syllables I had no sense of.

As I got a little older, though, I began to feel as if something was missing. It started bothering me that I couldn’t understand the lyrics to my favourite songs. I took Japanese lessons, but the language was too difficult for my English-speaking brain, so I quit after a year or two.

Onto Lyrics and Listening as a Writer

Thus I went to the music of my native tongue.

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“Protools and lots of printed out lyrics” by Hens Zimmerman – originally posted to Flickr as “Protools and lots of printed out lyrics.” Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

You know how you can read as a reader or read as a writer? Well, I’ve found you can listen to music as a listener or you can listen to music as a writer as well. You can approach an art form as an audience member or you can approach an art form as a fellow creator. Because I don’t consider myself a songwriter or a composer, listening to music as a writer is a little different because you naturally hear for techniques and nuances used in lyric writing that can be transposed into plain prose.

The Sound of Words

Andrew Bird

“Andrew-Bird” by Dani Cantó. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At one point I was heavily inspired by the conceptual lyrics of Andrew Bird (click for a YouTube link to “Anonanimal” live). As you can see, the sound of the words (consonance, assonance, alliteration) is a major part of Andrew Bird’s writing.

Verse 1 See a sea anemone, the enemy see a sea anemone And that’ll be the end of me, that’ll be the end of me While the vicious fish was caught unawares In the tenderest of tendrils. – Andrew Bird, “Anonanimal.” From SongLyrics.com.

The lyrics are strong enough to stand alone, but when paired with the violins’ yawning vibrato and plucky pizzicato, the effect of these words is amplified.

Musical Words

Recently I’ve been deeply invested in the works of Patti Smith (click here for the album Horses), a poet-musician-rocker-chick of the 70s known for her fusion of punk rock badassery and introspective poetry. From the scalding opening lines of “Gloria” (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins by not mine/Melting in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve/Thick heart of stone my sins my own/They belong to me. Me”) sung in a menacing drawl to the pensive narrative that opens up “Birdland”:

His father died and left him a little farm in New England. All the long black funeral cars left the scene. And the boy was just standing there alone, Looking at the shiny red tractor Him and his daddy used to sit inside And circle the blue fields and grease the night. – Patti Smith, “Birdland.” From Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future (1998).

In a totally different vein, I’m an enormous fan of Stevie Nicks (vocalist and songwriter of Fleetwood Mac). Although I wouldn’t characterize the more straightforward, even commercial, lyrical direction of Nicks as poetry per se, I enjoy her use of imagery, especially nature imagery. My favourite Fleetwood Mac song is “Crystal.” It uses images of water to describe the theme of true love – which is a theme so overdone and overwritten, to present it in a refreshing way is near impossible. “Crystal,” however, sung by Lindsay Buckingham’s tenor, is pretty refreshing, in my opinion, maybe because it conjures up images of glaciers and streams!

How do you listen to music? Do you place more importance on the melody or the lyrics? What kind of lyrics do you look for? Feel free to share your favourite songs and lyrics! Check out more Music Mondays; click here.

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5 thoughts on “Music Mondays: The Importance of Lyrics. Listening as a Writer.

  1. What a terrific post! Since music is something natural it resonates with us. Since music is also scientific – notes being similar to colors in a spectrum – there is also reason. Lyrics only enhance or distract. There are songs that get under my skin in classical, rock, pop, country, but I find foreign music to mostly be distracting, precisely because I don’t understand the lyrics. There are also tonal imbalances in many traditional music heritages that I find unappealing. The good stuff all has something in common. A certain run on a guitar, a deep choral dissonant, an electronic hypnotic pulse… Sufi music is tremendously soul soothing, but I can find the same feeling in the most violent rock music – for example, “Harsh” by Eyes Set to Kill gives me chills every time I hear it. Why do you think that is, and what is that thing?

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    • Thanks, Daniel, for the lovely response and follow! 🙂

      I like your thought on lyrics as an embellishment or distraction. Ironically, I think of foreign-language music as *removal* of the distraction lyrics sometimes give. Removing my ability to understand the words lets me appreciate the melody and the sound more.

      I know what you mean by certain musical elements that make us appreciate certain musical works! It can be as long as Jimmy Page’s solo on Stairway to Heaven. Or as brief as an extra flat in a chord. For example, the last section of Debussy’s “Claire de lune” is basically a re-statement of the opening theme, but the composer cleverly tweaks one note of one chord just down a semitone… I’ve always found that one tone a stroke of absolute genius, because it’s that precise tweak that gives the theme re-statement its sense of finality! In fact, it’s my favourite part of the piece; not the shimmering runs in the middle section.

      I’m probably rambling more than answering your question…but the element you speak of – it is a very personal/individual thing, and I’m afraid I can only speak of my experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. By the way I find it interesting how lyrics are usually not just poems set to music, ie the lyrics don’t stand alone as a poem; either there is missing narrative or just the grammar of it has been tailored to music. So music does tell part of the story. I’m interested to see if you were to compose/write a song’s lyrics, if you would do that as a writer or musician…

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  3. I find it super interesting that listening to music with english lyrics was one of the last things on your list. I admit as a music student I waived the importance of words and engaged simply with the purity of the music. Music with lyrics and music without are totally different things though. Music with lyrics certainly engages the reader/writer minded….however, bad lyrics don’t detract you from an otherwise musically sound song, does it? Are you solely focussing on good lyrics paired with good music? Or is the pairing of lyrics to music as intricately tied as a poem’s words to its meter/form?

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    • Unfortunately I do mind what I perceive as “bad” lyrics, or at least when I mind it when the melody of the song itself wasn’t strong from the outset. In some circumstances, though, the music of the music would be strong enough to cover any fault of the lyrics.

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