Category Archives: message

Musical Meanings

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theories about meaning in music are divided into two main camps: absolutist and referentialist. Absolutists holds that meaning is autonomously generated by the music. Responses stirred are secondary and independent from the music itself, which can only express musicality. Referentialists, on the other hand, contend that music is a shorthand for concepts, actions, images, and mood states. Music legitimately refers to things outside of itself. Whether the truth lies at either pole or resides somewhere in between, this debate usually grants a pass to song. By virtue of incorporating the comparatively straightforward symbolism of language, even the most obscure song is thought to have clearer signification than music without words.

Words substantially relieve music of the burden of generating meaning. They instantaneously imbue sound with an essence, which can change as quickly as the words are switched out for others. Still, it would be a mistake to think that lyrics are the ultimate decider of a song’s meaning. For every song that gives a more or less uniform impression, there are at least as many that leave room for interpretation. This is not only true for lyrics featuring ambiguity or metaphor; even lucid songs can be multivalent.

This is partly because songs typically originate from a personal place. The songwriter writes about experiences and sentiments tied to specific people, settings, moments, and so on. Listeners tend to personalize these themes and make them their own, with all the subjectivity that implies. Another complicating factor is association. The meaning of a song can be formed and re-formed depending on when, where, and with whom it is heard. This is exemplified in the “our song” phenomenon, when strong connections create a sense of ownership, and the “recycled song” phenomenon, when a tune begins on the radio, makes its way into a movie, becomes a wedding song, gets used in a commercial, etc. New meanings accumulate with each new usage.

There are also listeners who pay little attention to song lyrics, either because of thematic non-resonance, linguistic incomprehensibility, or an attraction to something else in the performance. This nullifies any clarity the words may have provided.

In the end, vagueness is a unifying aspect of music with and without words. Lyrics can mitigate uncertainty, but the fuzziness of musical meaning remains.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

More than Words

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Communication is usually defined as the exchange of information or ideas. The expansiveness and nuance of modern languages is such that almost anything can be put into words. Vocabulary helps us make sense of the world and process our experiences in it. Contrastingly, nonverbal communication is very limited in range. While it takes many forms—from gestures and facial expressions to posture and speech patterns—it mainly operates on the level of feelings. Nonverbal cues typically do little more than reinforce or contradict what is being said (like saying “thank you” with a smile or “everything is fine” with a frown). Nevertheless, psychologists have long known that the wording of a message is far less important than how the words are expressed.

In 1968, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian published an influential paper, “Communication Without Words,” which examined the relative effect of verbal and nonverbal communication. He found that the impact of speech is fifty-five percent facial, thirty-eight percent tone of voice, and only seven percent verbal. This comes pretty close to arguing that it doesn’t matter what we say, but how we say it. Of course, the formula applies less to purely factual statements, like giving directions or one’s stating name and address; but in ordinary conversation, nonverbal communication carries disproportionate weight.

While the 7%-38%-55% Rule might seem exaggerated, proof is readily found in our day-to-day lives. Just think of how sarcasm can flip the meaning of a phrase. Positive words are reversed with an eye roll or resentful tone. It is an entirely extra-linguistic trick, making it notoriously difficult to put into writing. Without vocal or facial indicators, “nice going” just means “nice going.”

The power of nonverbal communication is also felt in song. The musical content of a song is often thought of as additive—that is, as a vehicle for clarifying and transmitting lyrics. However, in many cases, the opposite is true: lyrics can simply be an excuse for making music. If spoken messages are thirty-eight percent voice tone, then song—a medium that accentuates the voice—is swayed even more by sound. Add to this the visible aspect of a live performance, and the importance of words dwindles further still.

There are many songs in which words have an exceedingly small impact. We all like songs with lyrics that, if merely spoken or read, would not interest us in the least. These come in six basic types, though there may be more: Songs with trite or sophomoric lyrics; Songs that make little sense; Songs with themes we do not condone; Songs with ideas we do not agree with; Songs in a foreign language; Songs about things with which we have no experience. In each case, words probably account for less than seven percent of our attraction.

To be sure, plenty of songs include thoughtful poetry. But they are not the majority. If, for instance, we were to comb the extensive Beatles catalogue, we would find that most of their lyrics are simplistic, some are nonsensical, and a small number are truly exquisite. These lopsided figures do not impact the band’s popularity, just as the words we say do not make or break how others feel about us. Communication is much more than words.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Scripted Thoughts

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.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.