Guest Post: Music or Lyrics?

For today’s birthday guest post, musician and blogger Ian Lipthorpe has decided to examine a subject I am sure many of us will have an opinion on – when you listen to a song, what is more important, the music or the lyrics? And why? I have to admit I go with both, depending on the song, but you may disagree with me – or with Ian. Have your say in the comments below!

If you’d like to read more, Ian blogs about music over at Harmony Corruption. He also curated the unofficial Manic Street Preachers Top 50 site New Chart Riot and you can hear some of his music (under the name Beneath Utopia) on Soundcloud.

In the world of modern music the majority of songs we listen to contain lyrics in one form or another. So it got me thinking, how much importance do we put on lyrics in songs compared to the music? Do we listen to the music first and the lyrics second, if at all? Do the lyrics make a difference as to how much we like a song? Does anyone like a song because of the lyrics but aren’t especially keen on the music?

There are obviously varying degrees of all of the above, but the subject does intrigue me. You see, I’m a music man through and through. I know the lyrics, I sing the lyrics, but to paraphrase Nirvana on ‘In Bloom’, I don’t necessarily think about what it means. Even stranger, you might think, given my well-known Manics tendencies. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to read them and understand what they mean, I just generally don’t bother (shame on you, you cry!).

There’s probably one topic of song lyrics where thinking isn’t necessary, that everyone identifies with in some way, and that’s the love song. Or for some bands/artists the why-isn’t-he/she-in-love-with-me song. The latter features more highly in my record collection but I expect that’s an accident of it being associated with pop/punk bands more than me being an awkward, whining teenager who seeks it out (which incidentally I kind of was, at least in some of my own old college-era lyrics).

But back to the point, love songs are universal, almost everyone can apply them to their lives somehow and if music is something you have in the background in the car or while you’re doing chores etc. then it’s probably highly likely that that’s the kind of song that will be playing. No need to think, it just mainlines straight to your brain, the meaning is obvious, the message is clear, no analysis required. That’s certainly not saying the people who are listening are stupid, just simply saying that’s all they want from their music, feel good/wallow, have a sing along and fill the empty space with sound.

Moving along the meaning-ometer you probably hit the likes of me. The people who listen to a wide range of genres, with a wide range of lyrical topics, but who don’t particularly sit down and think about what they mean. Which raises an interesting point – do lyrics help draw us into certain bands or genres? A lot of the music I listen to is metal, and historically it’s a genre that would be looked down upon for its lyrical content, I mean it’s all about Satan and black masses right? Maybe if you still live in the 70s or early 80s. There are plenty of metal bands with something to say and whose points are equally as valid as any other genre. But it begs the question, am I more pre-disposed to music like metal because I don’t place as much importance in the lyrics? My honest opinion is probably not, for the simple fact that I’m almost exclusively concentrating on the music when I’m deciding if I like a song or not, but it’s an interesting poser.

Which brings us back to the point of how much importance lyrics have within a song. To me they’re obviously essential (the odd instrumental aside). However, if the lyrics are embarrassingly bad then even if the music is good it may put me off. If the lyrics are average, bog-standard stuff then no problem, I’m listening to it for the music anyway. If the lyrics are great and mean something to me personally then that’s going to make a good song potentially better, although personally I can think of few examples.

I was partly inspired to write this blog based on two questions that crop up sometimes within my Manics circle on Twitter. If I talk about who wrote a song, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would be referring to who wrote the music. If I’m asked to write something about a song I like, I’m probably going to write about the first time I came across it and what it sounds like, musical reference points, influences and the like. Notice anything? You guessed it and a lot of people view it differently to me.

And so to those people who do analyse the lyrics, whether that be in passing or right up to the stay-awake-until-the-early-hours-of-the-morning-discussing-one-line sense. The more extreme end of that scale does interest me, if I do read the lyrics I’m fairly bad at identifying symbolism in there. I can hear someone else explain what it means and understand it perfectly but actually picking it out? Not great. I’ll use the example of ‘Like Suicide’ by Soundgarden, I read in an interview with Chris Cornell that the song was about a bird flying into a window/wall/whatever and him putting it out of its misery, and when you read back every single line makes perfect sense. But I would never have come up with that independently though, it’s not your standard subject matter!!

Maybe that’s another reason I don’t take as much notice, maybe I’m just lazy. I imagine reading habits come into it too, if you’re attuned to reading subject matter in a certain style, then you’re probably going to be attracted to lyrics in that style too. Or if you’re just someone who loves playing with words and reading between the lines to extract hidden meanings, whether they were intended by the author or not, then you’re highly likely to do that with song lyrics too.

I’ll end this blog with one of those initial questions because it’s the combination that intrigues me the most, being the most alien to me – are there songs where you love the lyrics and listen to the song because of them, but you don’t really like the music? Over to you and thanks for reading….

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24 comments

  1. rosewiltshire

    I have to like the melody & arrangement first or I don’t start listening. Good vocals keep me listening and re-listening.

  2. Tim Grady

    An interesting one thanks.

    On the most part for me I’d say the music is the most important thing. However I do like some folk music where lyrics are undoubtedly the focal point in that genre. I enjoy focusing on the words if I’m listening to say Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Someone like Joseph Arthur writes great lyrics but also very catchy and clever melodies, so the music is equally important.

    I usually find if the melody is great then I’m not really bothered about the literal meaning to a song. In conclusion then yes, the music comes first and the lyrics (if there are any) secondary.

    Cheers, Tim ☺

    • trickygirl

      Do you think that has anything to do with you being a musician too? Although I would say it’s both for me, I connect very strongly with certain lyrics, and I do wonder whether that’s down to the fact that I write.

      • Tim Grady

        Possibly. I do struggle to write lyrics to my own music, whereas the music can come relatively easy. I’m a sucker for a good melody, but as you know I also love Metal and fairly discordant music too where the lyrics are mostly indecipherable.

  3. Larelle

    I think I’ve always felt lyrics were probably of more importance to a song than the music. Nearly all my musical taste involves a level of lyricism. If I didn’t think lyrics were important I’m sure I’d be much more of a connoisseur of classical music, or soundtracks. Having said that though, I love a good ballet. So maybe what I require to enjoy music is an interpretation being imprinted on it, eith lyrically or visually.

    The one spanner in the works with my argument for the “lyrics” camp is me being a David Bowie fan. I have NO IDEA what he is singing about most of the time and I am also contradicting myself as my favourite Bowie album is Low, yet I’ve read ALL the lyrics to his songs, know them all off-by-heart and couldn’t imagine the songs with lyrics without them there. If I hear an instrumental version of say, Space Oddity, I put the words in!

    I’m the person who’d be peeved if there was no lyric sheet on the album sleeve. Seriously, I’d be well pissed!

    And my pet peeve? Lyric changes in live performaces! Gah!!! Although, I think I’ve slightly mellowed with time my opinion on that one. I can understand it getting boring performing the song the same way EVERY night.

    So, yeah. My argument is a flawed one, but I’m in the lyrics camp.

    • trickygirl

      I know what you mean about ‘filling in’ the lyrics on instrumental versions of tracks – I do that too!

      I think I agree with you about a lyrical or visual interpretation of music (videos might come into this too, perhaps). I suspect lyrics or a visual performance like a ballet gives the human mind something to associate and connect the music with. Definitely something to think about there!

    • Ian Lipthorpe

      It’s always bothered me that the Manics change the “I laughed when Lennon got shot” line live now! I obviously know why but….well, they always did reserve the right to contradict themselves I suppose!

  4. Pingback: September Update | Another Kind Of Mind

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