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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Music is what words really say

Mostly, music and words each come into being as vessels of emotion. We can think about the meaning of each in an abstract sense, but that's secondary.

In my previous post on music appreciation, I expressed some concerns about my writing about music—about using words to express why I love specific pieces of music. I'd rather create more music to express that love for other music.

But, as I mentioned, I seem to have some things to say. And, with the specific pieces of music I want to write about in future posts, I realize that the lyrics—the words are such an important part of that music.

So, I wanted to say a bit about words as music. And, first, to take a step back, I should say that I think almost all words, spoken or written, are "backed" by the same source as non-verbal musical expression: emotion.

This is actually a similar concept to body language. What I am saying is that the human voice—even translated into words typed on a computer, start out as non-verbal communications—and that source carries through to some extent in the final medium. When we read written / typed words, this is part of what we might be able to "read between the lines" on some occasions.

So, imagine that before someone speaks a word to you, what's starting inside them is much more like singing. Then, through social conventions, self-conciousness, verbosity, etc., that would-be song comes out as only a speaking voice saying words.

(Of course, in some cultures / languages, the natural speaking voice is more unabashedly musical! However, some of us just walk around speaking like unenthusiastic robotic honkies.)

In moments when one's guard is down, or moments of unbridled joy, or of terrible pain, or of drunkenness, or of passion, we sometimes let loose and say things that sound more like singing. And, what's so wonderfully musical about good lyrics is how they use words (e.g., syntactically / semantically) to free the voice to sing rather than speak.

Lyrics use rhythm, rhyme, cadence, phrasing and more to enable melody and singing. And the meaning of the words can push the shape of the music. (And word meanings and word sounds are themselves intertwined in a way that I think only musicality may unravel.)

And, likewise, melody and singing enable lyrics to mean what words really say, but don't (always) express when spoken or written.

How I listen to lyrics

I have a favorite way to get into the lyrics of the music I enjoy. First, I don't read the lyrics right away. I just listen to the music and listen for what's being sung as my ear is drawn to it.

At some point, I start to hear what's being said. (Let's assume this is a great song I love—needless to say, in other cases, hearing that what's being said is something lame is an awful disappointment.)

Then I start to really hear the whole of the lyrics. And really feel what's being said in each phrase. I might sing along or say the words—I hear the words as if I am singing them (e.g., about myself, about someone I know, etc.).

At this point, there may some lines I am not sure about. And, this is where I love to finally read the lyrics. I usally read them first, separate from listening to the song. Then I listen to the song again without reading along. And, finally, I may listen and read along at the same time.

Sometimes, if I don't have access to the printed lyrics, I'll listen to the song bit by bit and try to write the words down myself.

Finally, hearing what the words really say often means experiencing something that changes with each listen. The meaning is profound—whatever puzzle you may have solved getting to the point of really hearing the words, you now hear into a more unlimited mystery of experience and possibility being expressed.

To get into the words even more, I might play the song on guitar or keyboard, and sing along. And, even more, I'll start to change the musical arrangement, etc., to hear what the words say in different voicing / voices.

Even the stuff

We talk about a lot of stuff in our world, and a lot of that talk is supposed to be objective or informational or useful. At present, we spend a lot of time seeing people talking on TV or on the web, and, the way our visual sense can dominate our focus, we're drawn into how the speakers / words look (people talking on a screen, words written on a page).

But, if we listen, we can get into what's going on, deeper than what it all looks like. We can hear what's really being said. And, what's really being said is a kind of music. Sadly, much of it is like the song of desperation—how else to describe the thing that can drive us to such maniacal verbiage?

But, people can be beautiful music. And, even some of the most potentially dry and boring stuff, through the voice of someone filled with a joy and energy for life, can express great musicality.

As a closing example, I thought the subject of particle physics might be a good test case. Science is a subject we've all heard delivered in a dead and deadening way, and so I though this clip of Richard Feynman talking about rubber bands would be a good example of how enjoyment (to the point of almost singing) can be infused into a topic not known for sing-a-longs!


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