Monday Musings: Is The Meaning In The Lyrics Or The Music? and my weekly news roundup

Posted on May 2, 2011

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The critic has a muffin.

A few of the recordings I’ve reviewed lately have challenged me to think about the relationship between words and music, and the location of meanings in vocal songs. I’ve never shied away from discussing music with a lyric in a language I don’t understand, but I’m always aware that I’m missing out on a whole heap of possible interpretations. I listen to a lot of instrumental stuff, so it’s easy enough to find meaning and value (or its absence) in foreign language songs, but clearly, when the lyrics are in English, I need to consider them carefully.

I try to take my cues from the artist when I decide how much attention to pay to the lyrics: if they consider them sufficiently important to print them on the inlay, or post them on their website, I take them as being central to the work, and make sure I read them in full. I rarely go to the trouble of working out what every word is if the artist hasn’t bothered to tell me, but I still try to pay some attention, and often form my understanding of the creative intention from whatever snippets of verbal language I pick up on. If time wasn’t an issue, I might write them all out, but to be honest, I’d probably transcribe the instrumental parts first.

The crucial point in all this is to be aware that a song is not a piece of instrumental music with some poetry attached to it. There have been some sublime, genius songs (I’m thinking of Bob Dylan) where either component taken in isolation would be pedestrian or incoherent, but the way in which they work together generates meanings not expressed in one or the other. There are rhetorical tropes that can be used, such as irony; The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’ features a dark lyric and an upbeat, jaunty performance, but even where the lyrical and musical meanings are in apparently total concordance, there’s still more to it.

We have an idea of music as a ‘thing’, a specific kind of activity, which shapes sounds to generate meaning in relation to other sounds. It is easy to forget that this ‘thing’ is a culturally specific idea, rather than something with an independent, objective existence. In some other cultures there is no concept of music, although activities that we would identify as such are common in all societies. Humans everywhere organise sound, phonetically, tonally, rhythmically or timbrally, for many different reasons, aesthetic, semantic, spiritual, ritual and others. We are used to a phonetic-semantic, and a tonal-aesthetic emphasis in the Western world, but Indian classical musics, for instance, emphasise a rhythmic-phonetic-aesthetic system, among others, and Chinese languages have a phonetic-tonal structure. In many cases non-semantic uses of sound (i.e. ‘music’) are not conceived of as activities in their own right, but as components in a broader ritual or communal practice, and there is no word for it. In flamenco there is no traditional sense that cante (singing), toque (guitar playing) and baile (dance) are separate, independent activities: the palo (genre) and compás (rhythm)are articulated by all participants equally, and while the singer is considered central, the meanings of the performance are in the totality of the ensemble.

Similarly, we have a thing called ‘song’, which exists at the conjunction of two other concepts called ‘music’ and ‘verse’: the fact that these other ideas have a high status in our culture, while ‘song’ is thought to be a subset of ‘music’, has served to muddy things when we think and talk about the meanings of songs. The usual issue is that writers (especially rock critics) think they can talk about the meanings of songs by analysing the lyric, and then discussing how the music supports the lyrical meanings. This is a fallacy: when we address a song, we need to prise its meanings out of the crack between these two components. A song’s meaning can never be paraphrased, because it is both verbal and experiential.

So as usual I’ve sketched out some complex ideas that can’t possibly be done justice here, but I’ve been thinking about this stuff, and the above is, roughly, what I’ve been thinking about it. If anybody reading this is crazy enough to want to open up some debate, I’d love to read your comments. And now for something completely different.

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