Lyrical Integrity or Musical Brevity?

Bob Dylan famously met The Beatles and praised them for their lyrics to the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” mainly for the line “I get high, I get high, I get high.” Unfortunately, John Lennon had to quickly correct him as the lyrics were actually “I can’t hide.” It turns out the song wasn’t quite the cannabis fueled anthem Bob Dylan had thought it to be. This surprize revelation didn’t tarnish Dylan’s opinion of The Beatles and the night continued on as, shall we say, an introductory session for The Beatles to the use of some of Dylan’s “inspirational aids.”

Lyrics are powerful. Carefully chosen lyrics can transform a song. Where would the Rihanna song Birthday Cake be without the profound lyrics “He want that cake, cake, cake, cake, cake,” and so on? Oh, perhaps that wasn’t the best example. Surely the lyrics must be instrumental to a song’s success? But wait, I suppose there are many instrumental songs that have had great success, and classical music is definitely a thing, right? Can it be that lyrics are not as important as we may think?

We’ve definitely come a long way from the rhythmic, simplistic music of early mankind and, while some may claim to be disinterested in music, one can hardly deny that music has an uncanny power over people. It can affect our mood in so many ways. Even without lyrics, a few bars of a particular song can vividly evoke the feelings of a past event. Music seems to be ingrained in our DNA—I’ll leave that study to the biology students, though! To me, lyrics are often so much more powerful than the music that guides them and some artists can fully exploit this to bring out the best in a song—that’s not to say that I think they are crucial to a song’s success, however.

Recently the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced and was, rather unusually, awarded to Bob Dylan, a musician. Bob Dylan has this exceptional ability to capture the zeitgeist of an era in his lyrics alone. And without his lyrics many, perhaps all, of his songs would be greatly diminished. The awarding of this prize made me think about what it is, exactly, that I enjoy about music. What are the important elements of a great song? Is it purely the music, or is it something deeper?

I like to think that a song can be thought of, maybe rather simply, as having three major components: music, lyrics, and vocals. There is an important distinction between the latter two elements of a song, even if they are intrinsically connected. We learn in school about how the sound of a sentence can change the flow of a piece of writing through the repetition of vowel sounds or the leading sounds of words, and we are all familiar with how the quality of one’s singing voice affects our perception of a song—anyone who has gone to karaoke with me knows I do not improve upon any of the songs I sing. The impact of vocals can be seen readily in covers of popular songs. Perhaps you have heard Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” which is widely accepted as being the superior version, even by NIN themselves! Johnny Cash’s raspy vocals and delivery of the lyrics completely transform the song. In this example the lyrics carry a lot of weight, but it is the vocals that ultimately define the song. This idea of vocals can be extended to music without spoken words. Often the violin takes the up the mantle of the vocals in classical music, providing us with a strand of music we can easily follow and almost sing along with.

It’s so simple to shape a sentence with similar sounds and syllables, but much harder to combine those sounds with a strong narrative and deeper symbolic meanings. Bob Dylan understood this and, despite his unusual voice and simplistic playing style, he managed to secure his place in musical history. While I could talk about Dylan’s lyrics at length, they have been analyzed time and time again by people much more qualified than I. Instead, I’d rather use an example from another, more contemporary band: The Decemberists. While not one of my favorite bands by a large margin, they consistently produce phenomenal lyrics. In fact, it’s their lyrics that really made them stand out in the early 2000s indie rock scene. They make excellent use of alliteration and assonance in practically all of their songs.

One of my favorites is called “Summersong.” Take this line, for example,

“Waylay, the din of the day
Boats bobbing in the blue of the bay
In deep far beneath
All the dead sailors slowly slipping to sleep.”

Their lyrics read more like prose, and the beat of the sentence really comes out when sung. Not only are the lyrics well written, they flow perfectly alongside the music, adding an amazing vocal layer to the mix. While you can praise Dylan on so many levels, his vocals were never his strong point. His off-beat meter certainly adds to the feeling of his songs, and one could argue it is important, but boy does it make singing along to his songs while playing exceedingly frustrating since his lyrics cut across musical bars seemingly at random!

So after all this, what do I look for in a song? Despite talking about the importance of lyrics, they are definitely not what I look for when I listen to a song for the first time. It’s all about the music, then the vocals, and finally the lyrics. But when I do get to the lyrics, they can completely change my opinion of a song. The lyrics of a song help us to understand what the artist was thinking while creating the album; they can add a much deeper level of meaning if chosen carefully. If you truly love a song, try listening closely to the lyrics and maybe you’ll get something more out of the experience. You know, unless it’s a dance anthem—in which case the lyrics are just along for the ride.

Photo: Bob Dylan with the most commonly used words in his lyrics, 2011. Courtesy of Juan Osborne,

Mark Daly is one of the oft heard of but rarely seen final year students at OIST. Having been relegated to the basement of Lab 2, presumably to finish his thesis, he spends his time writing and worrying about his impending future outside OIST. His hobbies include music, gaming, drinking, and worrying about his impending future outside of OIST.