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... Lyrics. Theories about songs. In the beginning was the. And the Song was ... In non-literate cultures, Song was a means of recording oral tradition. Lyrics ...

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damn good lyrics

Damn Good Lyrics

Theories about songs

in the beginning was the
In the beginning was the

And the Song was with God.

And the Song was God.

John 1:1

along with speech song was a primal means of communication
Along with speech, Song was a primal means of communication
  • Before writing, Song formed the medium for
    • Story-telling
    • Drama and dance
    • Poetry
    • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey began as song-stories before written Greek came into use
  • In non-literate cultures, Song was a means of recording oral tradition
  • ‘Lyrics’ come from theGreek ‘lyre’
  • Words and music weremutually integral
  • But why bother studying lyrics today?
why bother
Why bother?
  • Common criticisms:
    • “Lyrics are secondary; the words don’t really matter. It’s all in the music, man”
    • “I never pay attention to the words; you can’t really hear most of them anyway”
  • Functional criticism:
    • “Pop lyrics are just intuited from the music - they're just another track in the mix”

(Ian McDonald)

but what happens if lyrics are removed
But what happens if lyrics are removed?

You are left with –

  • The ‘instrumental’: an undistinguished genre
  • Top selling Pop/Rock Instrumentals since 1950
    • Herb Alpert/Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull
    • Aker Bilk, Strangers on the Shore
    • Booker T & the MGs, Green Onions
    • Surfaris, Wipe Out
    • Kenny G, Song Bird
    • Dick Dale, Miserlou (but not until Pulp Fiction)
    • Floyd Cramer, Last Date
song lyrics defined
Song Lyrics: defined
  • Lyrics are framed and textured words
    • (rhythmically/melodically/sonically)
  • Lyrics are staged voices
    • "a song doesn't exist to convey the meaning of the words; rather the words exist to convey the meaning of the song“
    • “It is the extralinguistic elements …that constitute the pop song—the driving bass line, earthy guitar, haunting Hammond organ, wistful wailing slide guitar, and rasping delivery of the lyrics”

(David Boucher)

lyrics are closer to theatre than to poetry
Lyrics are closer totheatre than to poetry
  • Songs can be poetic, but they are not just poetry set to music
    • They are someone speaking, performing, to another (or themselves)
    • Singers portray character, a role
    • Songs have narrative and plot
  • Songs have to be performed
    • Just like a play
  • . Poetry doesn’t.
the secret
The Secret
  • I'm here where I want to be
  • Seven thousand miles from infinity
  • No one knows where I am
  • It's quiet here with me
  • I'm filling in the spaces where the killings used to be
  • There's no phone and no way home
    • It's been a long time coming
    • It's been a long time
  • I'm here where I want to be
  • Seven thousand miles from infinity
  • No one knows where I am but me
how does the recording of these words shape their texture
How does the recording of these words shape their texture?
  • Timbre
    • Voice(s)
      • Pitch, register, phrasing, tone, harmony, accent, gender
  • Echo
  • Ambience
  • The Secret by Meryn Cadell (1985)





A song suffers when any of these elements

are weak or don’t mesh with the others

weak elements
Weak elements
  • Bad Lyrics
  • Poor Music: weak arrangements
    • “Waiting Room” (Fugazi/Emm Gryner)
    • “The Wall” (Wrongs: C/W rendition)
  • Weak or Incongruent Performance
    • Madonna sings “American Pie”
    • Shatner sings … anything
    • Paul Anka ….
  • Weak Recording?
some aspects of lyrics
Some Aspects of Lyrics
  • Plot
  • Expression
  • Voice
  • Craft
  • “The unknown tongue”
  • Context
song lyrics can have
1. Plot (implied/explicit)

Story/characters (back story)



effective hook

Viewpoint: “World without Tears”

Song lyrics can have
song lyrics can have1
2. Expression (oratory)

Emotion (through diction/tone)


metaphor/simile: “Time”

Accessibility through connection


Song lyrics can have
3 songs also have voice
3. Songs also have ‘Voice’
  • Timbre/Accent (e.g. genre specific)
  • Tone: “Volcano”
  • Style
  • Cadence and phrasing
  • Repetition: “Mad World”
  • Poetic/sonic framing:
    • often rhyme, assonance, alliteration …
4 good songs have craft
4. Good songs have Craft
  • A finished, rounded, work
    • symmetry /asymmetry
  • The art of the songwriter is to find the words which get at the right feeling, both in meaning and in sound
    • "Ordinary Language put to extraordinary use"
5 the unknown tongue
5. The “Unknown Tongue”
  • "someplace between the incapturably transitory and the imperceptibly infinite“
    • Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock (1970/87)
  • It speaks to you; it calls you
  • Musical Punctum = “the sudden and inexplicable recognition/convergence of meaning”
    • Barthes, discussing the semiotics of photography
5 the unknown tongue1
5. The “Unknown Tongue”

Great songs

  • “… articulate a feeling rather than explain it”
    • "The content of a song becomes its effect, becomes what it makes us feel"
  • … balance sincerity / seduction:
    • unarticulated emotion vs "a way with words“

Simon Frith, Performing Rights

5 the unknown tongue2
5. The “Unknown Tongue”

Music “is a strange language understood by all without instruction, although its creation is foreign to most” [in the west]

“Music is a way of holding off time, making the present fill all space. It joins us with others yet defends our privacy. It lifts the spirit, assuages grief, and sometimes teaches. Above all it creates values, along with a social structure that nurtures, defends and celebrates those values”

Philip Ennis, The Seventh Stream

6 context
6. Context

The collaboration of artist and audience is like that between the flagmaker and the wind (Ennis)

  • The Contexts of time and place:
    • a piece of music is shaped by (and shapes) the context in which it is created
    • Some contextual factors:
      • Location/audience
      • Economic/technological
      • Language/culture
      • Social/political
6 social context 7 streams
6. Social Context: 7 Streams
  • White Pop: the main commercial music of the nation
  • Black Pop: the popular music of Black Americans
  • Country Pop: the popular music of US white South/Southwest

The 'Purity' Streams

  • Jazz: predominantly a performers' medium that values mastery
  • Folk: everybody's ancestor: non-commoditized music of the 'peoples'
  • Gospel: US religious music: mostly vocal
6 social context 7 streams1
6. Social Context: 7 Streams
  • Rock: the music of American youth

which developed out of

    • the first 6 streams during the transformation of US society after WW2 and
    • the technological/commercial reformation of the music/media industry
6 social context musical streams
6. Social Context: Musical streams

A Musical Stream is

  • A social reality made up of
    • an artistic system
    • an economic framework
    • a social movement
    • and an ethos.
6 social context musical streams1
6. Social Context: Musical streams

1.Artistic System (the Diamond): Basic Social Molecule of an Art

  • its artists: who create the pieces of art
  • the distributors: who select them for presentation to…
  • the audience: whose presence and approval (or disapproval) is essential
  • the critics: upon whom the public responsibility for evaluation rests.




6 social context musical streams2
6. Social Context: Musical streams
  • Economic framework: the market-place, 3rd-party choice, gift exchange
  • Social Movement: a social formation supporting (for example) a race, class, age group, region
  • Ethos: a set of cultural preferences
    • e.g. Jazz, Gospel, Folk resist indiscriminate widening of their audience, while the 3 Pops encourage it. The 7 streams have different sets of value systems.
6 social context musical streams3
6. Social Context: Musical streams

A Musical Stream is

  • "The sound of ordinary life generating its tribal cries as it seeks its tribal ties.“
  • It's a 'loose' structure: fluid, dynamic, intractable.
  • It is not a style, a genre, or a form:
    • It contains and manipulates all of these.
  • Chapter 50: Where did the 60s go?
    • Lester Bangs: Of Pop, Pies, and Fun
    • 230-236