This started as an e-mail response to a friend but I decided that it should be shared a little more than that.
My friend is a self-confessed lover of music,. In fact it is a great part of his life. He’s written articles about it and had several books published as well. He is a person who helped to widen my musical taste at a very formative age. It is his fault that I have a great love of Prog Rock!
In a recent e-mail he wrote that he doesn’t listen to lyrics. Here’s my open response:
To me music is about the whole of what you are listening to. Instrumental music allows you to let your mind run free to follow the musical landscape and paint its own pictures to go with the music. Beethoven’s 6th Pastoral Symphony is a great example, as is Smetan’s Valtava. Both paint pictures with their music of fields and a rolling river. The sound brings the images to life. They don’t need words to illustrate what they are tonally showing.
Likewise folk songs often provide lyrical and musical images that pass on the story in a more accessible way. You cannot listen to the songs of Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie unless you listen to both music and words. Where would Matty Groves be purely as poetry? No where near as effective.
I can understand people listening to the music of a song and appreciating the beauty and complexity that it contains. Yet in so doing you can’t divorce the music from the lyric. To appreciate the complexity of the different time signatures contained in Songs From The Wood by Jethro Tull but not listening to the lyrics robs it of its intended experience and worth.
The music of Yes is both technically great and lyrically mystifying. Yet when you have the music without the, sometimes senseless, lyrics they lose their power to touch. The artist intended the two to go together.
In many ways it would be like looking at a work of art and only appreciating the brushwork. Focusing souly on the technical at the expense of the complete work the artist is portraying, does not show the complete design. Is Van Gogh’s work beautiful just because of his style of painting in swirls? Or is Van Gogh’s work more impressive when you stand back and see what the brushwork achieved?
Most music is written to provoke an emotional response of some description, wether love, anger, fear, worship or confusion. Music has the ability to touch the soul in a way that most other things can’t. It can take you to great heights or to great depths. It can rouse you for war or instill peace and calm.
As I write this I’m playing the Pink Floyd Pulse DVD. Occasionally I glance over my laptop screen and see the visual effects that go along with some of the music. The music is powerful on its own. Can you listen to Shine On You Crazy Diamond and not feel the emotion and depression from the opening? Yet the lyrics are what contributes the most to the song. You cannot divorce one from the other.
Yet Floyd’s music was also meant to be seen with pictures or images. Their music came about as a way of fusing images to music. The music takes on another eement when you see the lighting and pictures that go with it. Who could appreciate the impact of Another Brick in the Wall without the marching hammers in the video?
By not listening to the lyrics that go with songs you devalue the song’s worth and the artistic work of the composer(s). Yes the music maybe technically superb but the artist(s) meant it to be appreciated with the lyrics that go with it.
If you don’t believe me then I’ll lend you a copy of Rick Wakeman Plays Yes or the Classic Rock orchestral albums. The music alone has impact but is missing something. The lack of lyrics removes some of the emotional impact. You listen to something you know to be incomplete.
Conversely you have to acknowledge that some songs have lyrics that do nothing for a song. They could have been written by those infinite number of monkeys who are striving to type the collected works of Shakespeare.
Good music is written to provide an emotional input to the system. Good music can make your heart and mind come to life. It can bring you to the heights and a closeness to God. Yet it can also take you to the depths of despair. What it doesn’t do is leave you untouched.