Thursday, March 17, 2011

I question you

How do you listen to songs for the first time? That is to say, how do you hear songs that have vocals in them? Do you hear the lyrics first, and then determine how you feel about the song? Or what about the beat and the instrumentation? I have a lot of trouble listening to lyrics in a song. In fact, a lot of the time, I don't care what the lyrics are. However, I think they're very important. How hypocritical I am. I feel that, if the lyrics aren't going to say something (I pretty much detest "yeahs" and "oos," but for certain circumstances) then they shouldn't bother being included in the piece. At the same time, I rarely care what they say. Are you like me at all? I'm curious about what attracts you to songs. 

Artist: Bjork.


  1. Interesting question! I'm pretty inconsistent with this. There are songs that I've listened to 50+ times and still don't know the lyrics, and don't really care what they are, because it's more about the beat or the groove or the harmonies. There are some songs where the lyrics hit me hard, and the music is nothing special, but it just supports the words and stays out of their way. I also like listening to music in foreign languages because I enjoy listening to the sound of the words without attaching a meaning. Great question--I'm going to start noticing this more!

  2. I listen to the SHAPE of a song first, if that makes any sense. The rhythm, the tonal density, the melodic flow up and down, dynamics, tempo, consistency/irregularity of structure. I'm after mood. Lyrics come next. Generally, the shape of the song implies mood, and the mood should match the lyrics (unless there's a deliberate contrast).

    I've used this consciously in my own songwriting. One song I wrote (Ruins) has an east/west, past/present tension in the lyrics - a character hiding from the world in some anonymous Asian city where he's been for decades as the city grew around him. Structure is AABACA for each verse. The A section is Am7/Dsus2, harmonically ambiguous except to imply minor. The B section is Am7/G/D, pushing that vague quasi-pentatonic minor into full Dorian mode and westernizing the scale without breaking it. C section is Em/Fmaj7 (stop) - breaking the Dorian and getting very dissonant. The lyrics follow this structure - two lines about east/old (A section), one about west/new (B section), and a closing chorus line (C section).

    I wish I could always be this conscious of what I'm doing! But that said, I find that in solid songwriting, the lyrics match meaning and structure to the rhythmic/harmonic structure.