I love lip-syncing. Even before drag queens became mainstream, I absolutely loved singing along or syncing along to my favourite songs. I keep a couple of lyrics in my pocket for emergencies; they can be that powerful.
Yet, when I started learning music, I came to appreciate the undeniable power that instruments can bring. And yes, the voice is one of those most powerful instruments, but other instruments turn words into music.
To me, music is about frequencies. Ever notice how the mood of a room totally shifts when you turn off your computer or a TV? Operating at such a subliminal level, frequencies, resonances, dissonances, harmonies, all of those things deeply impact your emotions.
I love to use the hilarious example of some bus stations or fast food places that, during a busy period or unsociable hours, will begin to play classical music in the background that will unconsciously discourage young and possibly disruptive people from staying in the space too long.
Why does that happen? Because of its nuance, the frequencies and emotions that instruments bring are incredibly subtle; they cannot be thought about, they can only be felt. This is one of the reasons why instrumental music is incredibly niche. It requires you to really listen, and to also give permission. Permission to open yourself to allow particular notes to open up things inside of yourself.
Sound Came Before Words Did
It really came to me in a simple sentence by the lead singer of the band Tool, Maynard James Keenan, when describing his writing process. He said that “sound is a higher form of language” meaning that he does not even begin the writing process until the song has been fully composed. And even then, he thinks in melodies first, and then the shape of the words/meaning follow.
When people talk about rap, they don’t just interact with the concrete meaning of what the rapper is trying to say; they interact with the beat, with the flow and intonation of how it is said. That is what gives it the emotion.
Even you, dear reader, tried babbling and playing with shapes of sound before you spoke your first words. Children learning to speak really do sound like someone trying to learn an instrument by making random sounds until connections get made, and that’s because sound came first.
“If the words were so important, then people would be doing sold out spoken word tours. But it’s the music that pulls them.” — Maynard James Keenan
In this sense, music is a victim of its own power. Its effect is so subtle in a way that people don’t even realise or acknowledge that presence.
I wanted to mention all these things because, at a certain point I began to explore a lot of instrumental music. When I shared these with people, the number one question would be “So WHEN do the vocals start?” as if it was some kind of expectation or universal law.
I tried to let that go, but I have encountered that question so many times that I really want to investigate it. Why do lyrics matter so much?
I’ve done my homework, so here are the results.
The Link Between Lyrics and Literature
The term “lyrics” has its roots in “lyric poetry” which is a form of poetry that dates back to Ancient Greece. Lyrical poems engage with emotions. That might sound overly simplistic that “duh…obviously poetry is about emotions!” but actually you’d be surprised.
Poetry really begins with the oral tradition, and the oral tradition has its roots in religion, ritual and politics. The role of the poet was to elevate spiritual consciousness, or reinforce(or subvert) political order. The idea of sharing emotions, especially from a personal point of view is actually extremely modern.
Classical poets got around this by inserting a middle man between themselves and the subject matter. If you go right back, poets used mythological figures or events to insert emotions, or that they would use their relationship with nature to kind of hint at what they were feeling without directly saying it.
In the Victorian era, the development of dramatic monologue meant that poets could invent characters and speak in their voice; but they didn’t really speak about themselves. A hundred years later or so, enter the confessional poets who speak in first person and when they speak, they actually refer to themselves which of course, puts them in a more vulnerable position, but also makes it more raw.
In this sense, the development of the “lyric” shifted and changed across time.
Of course, nowadays we associate lyrics with deeply personal subject manner. But we also invoke music simultaneously when we say that. The idea of the “lyric poem” has disappeared in the background.
This is problematic for the following reasons:
- For a song to be considered as “music” ironically the lyric element must be present.
- If the lyrics don’t speak to your own experiences, don’t serve you or give you anything, it’s not worth listening to.
- Instrumental music is always niche, almost never at equal parity with lyrical music, even though the music is what imbues the words with such feeling.
- You get an amazing choice of three subject matters: How good the party is, relationships, or sex.
- Instrumentation almost always sits in the background and lets the vocals do all the work. Great for the vocalist, not so great for the player.
I mention these things in the context of today’s popular music. As with everything, there will always be exceptions, but I think there is even more to this…
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Before I embark on my next bit of polemic, let me start by saying that I am well aware that people engage with music at different points. Some people use it as background filler in order to make work easier, other people put the radio in during the drive to work, and some people enjoy being told a story.
I am not saying that you all need to stop what you’re doing and take a music degree. All I would want is for all of the amazing work that some players do be recognised, appreciated, and if it’s new to you, listen with open ears and an open heart. It’s okay if you don’t like it; but let’s be a little bit more active in what we’re doing in a world that always teaches us to be passive.
So, now that I’ve done my disclaimer, onto the juicy bit:
Music isn’t always there to tell you how amazing or how fucked up your relationship is. There is more to lyrics than relationships. Likewise, music is not a pristine mirror that reflects your experiences back to you. That’s called narcissism. Music can be music, even if it has no lyrics. Just like what you eat, what you see and where you are, what you consume by your ears has a profound effect on you.
Let’s give that the respect it deserves.