Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
A song consists of words set to music for the purpose of being sung. This definition is so basic that it hardly needs mention. What is perhaps less obvious is the power that language exerts on the music to which it is set. Lyrics give musical sounds a specific character, turning a notoriously abstract art form into a delivery system for potential crystal clarity—potential because, depending on the subject’s accessibility and the intelligibility of the language, a song can approach a level of directness rarely achieved in other modalities.
To be sure, lyrics can at times seem superfluous, regardless of how poorly or finely crafted they are, or how well or badly they merge with the music. For some people, the words are merely a doorway into a musical experience, and have little attraction in and of themselves (I tend to fall in this camp). Songs are also multidimensional artifacts, saturated with cultural assumptions, subject to critical judgment, and filtered through personal lenses. Moreover, each individual has heard songs wearing different sets of ears, sometimes gravitating toward the words and other times not. Still, despite this diversity of engagement, the greatest strength of song remains its capacity for clarity.
Lyrics have a distinct advantage over other types of linguistic expression. The placement of words in musical confinement yields many clarifying constraints and devices, including: metered stanzas that regulate the number of syllables; recurring phrases that eliminate ambiguity; familiar idioms and clichés that provide instant messages; choruses that reiterate central themes; poetic tools like rhyme, assonance and alliteration, which help weed out extraneous language. Of course, some songs employ these elements better than others, and there is room for nuance and creativity (and miscommunication), even with these controls. But, taken as a whole, songs are uniquely adept at compressing, containing and conveying streamlined concepts.
This unclutteredness runs counter to the human condition, which condemns our minds to endless and often-disjointed thoughts. True, most of us can steer ourselves into clear thinking when needed; but it is impossible to harness the mechanism at all times. The thought motor is always running, even in our sleep.
I’m reminded of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, when Mrs. Pefko complains to Dr. Breed, “You scientists think too much.” “I think you’ll find,” replied Dr. Breed, “that everybody does about the same amount of thinking. Scientists simply think about things one way, and other people think about things in others.” This is the blessing and burden of our species.
Songs embody the elusive ideal of lucidity. They are neatly packed containers, carefully arranged and efficiently delivered. They are, in short, the opposite of wandering words.
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