Lyrics, and Meaning in Music - Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell

Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)

Chapter 2. Lyrics, and Meaning in Music


The power of lyrics

Back in the nineteenth century, British foreign policy seems to have consisted mostly of shooting people in large numbers. By 1812 we were at war with the Russians, the Swedes, and, as usual, the French. (I’ve no idea what the conflict with Sweden was about—but I bet it had something to do with the IKEA home delivery service.) The Americans, understandably, felt a bit left out and decided to join in the excitement by also declaring war on us.

After a slow start, the Americans really started to get into the swing of things, and by 1814 the British decided to punish them for their lack of ex-colonial gratitude by setting fire to their cities. In August they burned Washington and the following month moved on to attack Baltimore from the sea. Over a twenty-five-hour period the Brits shot about 1,800 cannonballs at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, and by dawn the only light in the city (apart from the dawn) came from the exploding shells—which illuminated the American flag still flying above the fort.

Watching this deplorable display of pyrotechnics was the American lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key. Like all poets he had paper and pencil always at the ready, and he sat down to pen (or pencil) the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which describes the flag fluttering in the smoke and flames:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

This—and three more verses—were set to the tune of an old English drinking ditty with the thoroughly unwieldy name of “The Anacreontic Song,” written by another bloke with three names—John Stafford Smith.

And that’s how the American national anthem—“The Star-Spangled Banner”—was born. I’ve no doubt that a lot of modern-day Americans wish that lines three and four were a bit easier to remember—but “the land of the free and the home of the brave” is just the sort of thing you want to hear in a national anthem.

“The Anacreontic Song,” however, which had the tune first, would cause some consternation if it were sung at, for example, an Olympic Games medal ceremony. The words are addressed to the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, who specialized in drinking songs, and the second verse goes like this:

Voice, fiddle, and flute—no longer be mute,

I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot.

And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Featuring the Roman goddess of sex (Venus) and the god of wine (Bacchus), these lyrics are pretty much the eighteenth-century equivalent of the Ian Dury song “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” which was a hit two hundred years later.

Many Americans feel a surge of emotion when they hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I’m in favor of music having emotional effects. But as you can see, the emotional content of this and just about every other song can be changed completely by applying different words to the tune.

Lyrics add a new dimension to a piece of music. The simple addition of a human voice singing “baby baby baby” can infuse the music with sexy enthusiasm or sadness—depending on the way the voice is being used. Emotion can be conveyed simply by vocal inflection, and we can be moved by lyrics sung in languages we don’t understand. (I wonder how many Sigur Rós fans speak Icelandic?) There are even examples of emotionally charged songs in made-up languages that no one understands. Enya’s beautiful song “Aníron” from the sound track of Lord of the Rings is sung in the invented Elvish language of Sindarin.

Of course, most lyrics tell a story as well as relying on emotional vocalization. From the gentle poetry of “Ace of Spades” to the gritty realism of “Puppy Love,” we all have our favorites, and of course we all have lyrics we can’t stand. For those of you interested in lyrics that are irritating, ludicrous, or simply insane, I’d like to recommend Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs. In this deeply philosophical contribution to human wisdom you’ll find more than you might ever have wished to know about songs like “MacArthur Park” (the one about a cake getting rained on) and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by Ohio Express. There’s also a tantalizing mention of a (possibly mythical) country and western song called “The Only Ring You Gave Me Was the One around the Tub.”

Sometimes even the finest songwriters have to take liberties with the language in order to make a rhythm or rhyme work. In some cases this just means that the music requires the singer to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word (e.g., apricot at the end of the fourth line of “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon). But it must have been irritating for Neil Diamond when he had to resort to using the nonstandard word “brang” (to rhyme with “sang”) in his song “Play Me.”

The power of lyrics to alter our response to a tune was demonstrated in an experiment carried out in 1994 by the psychologists Valerie Stratton and Annette Zalanowski, who played the song “Why Was I Born?” (written by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern in the 1920s) to two groups of listeners.1 When the tuneful, pleasant music was played by itself, it cheered people up, but when the lyrics (a sad refrain about unrequited love) were included, it had the opposite effect.

Mind you, we don’t always listen to lyrics carefully—and even when we do, we often misinterpret them. This is particularly true of young people, who are the target audience of most pop songs. A survey carried out in 1984 offered people four alternative meanings to pop songs.2 Only one of these interpretations was true and had been verified as such by the songwriter. The songs in question were fairly obvious about the message they were trying to put across. They included, for example, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Trouble Every Day” by Frank Zappa. The young people (they were all under thirty) who participated in the study got it wrong on average three times out of four—which is the same success rate as picking answers at random without even hearing the songs. Another experiment found that only one third of the people questioned could correctly identify the fact that Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” was about sex; an equal number of people thought it was about sports and exercise.3

Happily, we get better at identifying what a song is about as we get older—but that doesn’t stop a lot of us from falling into the Mondegreen trap.

The word “Mondegreen” comes from the seventeenth-century ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’Moray.” Or rather, it doesn’t…

The ballad goes like this (and, by the way, “hae” means “have”):

Ye highlands and ye lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl o’Moray,

And laid him on the green.

In November 1954 Sylvia Wright wrote an article for Harper’s magazine in which she explained that her mother used to read these words to her when she was a child—but although her mother read the correct words, Sylvia had always thought the final two lines were:

They hae slain the Earl o’Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

She went on to suggest that, as there was no name for this sort of mishearing of lyrics, they should be called Mondegreens—which I think is fair enough.

Let’s take this opportunity to clear up some long-standing Mondegreen-induced misconceptions:

In the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Bad Moon Rising,” the message is menacing, “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” rather than helpful: “There’s the bathroom on the right.”

In the first line of Desmond Dekker’s 1968 hit, he’s not eulogizing about the fact that he’s going to be having “baked beans for breakfast.” Apparently the only thing on the menu is bread. And the song is called “The Israelites,” not “Me Ears Are Alight.”

At the beginning of our favorite song about flying ruminants, Rudolf is being laughed at by all of his reindeer colleagues, not by a single, nasty individual called Olive.

Meaning and messages in music without lyrics

The fact that lyrics can tell a story has led some people to believe that music by itself can do so as well. Those of you who listen to classical music will probably be familiar with the idea of “program music,” which was very popular in the nineteenth century. This type of music is intended to tell a particular tale the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece. One of the most famous of these is Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the program of which describes a day trudging around the countryside watching peasants dancing and getting caught in a thunderstorm etc.

I was going to use this as a prime example of a program until I found a much funnier one.

In about 1700 the French composer Marin Marais underwent an operation to remove a stone from his bladder and, being a composer, he thought this would make an excellent subject for a piece of program music—and who are we to disagree?

This is what Marais calls a program:

The appearance of the operating table

A shudder on first seeing it

Resolving to get onto it

Climbing onto it

Sitting on it

Grave thoughts

Tying the arms and legs down with silken cords

Making the incision

Introduction of the tweezers

The stone is removed

Nearly losing your voice

The flow of blood

Removal of the silken cords

Off to bed

All this in a piece lasting two and a half minutes, written for the viola da gamba, a cello-like instrument (with optional keyboard accompaniment).

Clearly, Marais couldn’t really expect us to work out that a particular musical sound was meant to convey “Removal of the silken cords.” We might stand a chance of guessing that a group of notes communicates “Grave thoughts”—but a group of notes suggesting “Grave thoughts” to one person might conjure up images of Etruscan pottery… or sunrise over Bolton to someone else.

Going back to the slightly less bonkers program of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony—during the bit where Beethoven is depicting peasants dancing, the bass line is ludicrously simple, just a repeated pattern of three long descending notes. Beethoven knew that the person playing the bass instrument in a village band was usually the least skilled member of the group, restricted to playing extremely simple stuff while his more melodic friends showed off on their fiddles and fifes. So to help us follow the story, Beethoven portrayed his peasant band with an appropriate dance tune and a very simple bass line. But unless you are deeply familiar with the antics of nineteenth-century Austrian village musicians (as Beethoven was), then all this would simply pass you by—as it did me until I started reading up on it. The symphony is full of imitations of the sounds of nature such as birdsong and thunder, but Beethoven himself wasn’t comfortable with the idea of trying to use music to tell a story. He described the work as an “expression of feelings” rather than a musical “painting.”4

For an example of music successfully conveying specific messages, let’s return to nineteenth-century America—which, you will recall from earlier in the chapter, was a place of strife and difficult-to-remember poetry.

At the time when Baltimore was being (ineffectually) pounded by the British navy, the armies of both sides of the conflict had been using bugle calls as signals for several years. The soldiers had to know what each call meant, and there was a lot of confusion because various branches of the army used similar calls; for example, the cavalry used a call that meant “Water your horses,” which could easily be confused with the infantry call that meant “Make camp.” In 1867 Major Truman Seymour—who was utterly fed up with being mobbed by thirsty horses whenever his infantry got their tent pegs out—drew up a definitive list of about forty calls and all the soldiers learned them. This is an example of a working musical language, in which music carries detailed information.

The most famous American bugle call of all, “Taps,” was originally used to tell the soldiers that the beer taps were about to be turned off, and would they please all get off to bed because they had a busy day tomorrow. Over the years its role has changed, and it’s now the tune the American army plays at dusk and at military funerals—which brings us neatly to a discussion of the Woodstock rock festival in 1969.

Woodstock—one of the first and one of the biggest rock festivals—happened at a time when most of the world thought the Vietnam War had been going on for far too long. The war was, naturally, particularly unpopular with the type of long-haired, pot-smoking layabouts who attend rock festivals.

Enter Jimi Hendrix, guitar hero and antiwar protester. As part of his Woodstock set Jimi plays a feedback-ridden, distorted version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which goes on for about three and a half minutes. He alternates between a fairly clear rendition of the tune and a virtuoso display of violent noises from his Fender Stratocaster, imitating screams and bombs going off. And just to make his point absolutely clear, toward the end of the solo he plays “Taps,” invoking all those military funerals, all those lives lost.5 A great antiwar protest, which no doubt helped to end the war while simultaneously providing an enormous boost to the sale of Fender Stratocasters.

So here we have a specific, complex message being sent to a crowd of half a million people using music without words. Of course, the message wouldn’t have come through to a crowd of people who didn’t know the two tunes involved or the political context in which they were played. Music doesn’t carry any messages or stories unless you’ve been taught beforehand that a particular tune or rhythm means this or that. This need for pre-knowledge is a feature of all methods of communication. Sign language, for example, works only if everyone involved in the conversation understands what the signs mean. Except for systems such as bugle calls and rare cases like Jimi’s guitar solo, there is no way of extracting a clear message from purely instrumental music because there is no agreed-upon vocabulary. The visual and literary arts are often used to describe objects, people, and actions, but music isn’t used in this way because there is no dictionary for translating musical statements into specific meanings.

But if music isn’t a method of delivering meaningful statements, what use is it? And why is it so important to us?

It’s going to take most of the rest of the book to answer these questions, but we can make a start here by going back to absolute basics.

When I was preparing to write this book, I read an awful lot of definitions of music, and one of my favorites was in one of the old books huddled around the fireplace of a country pub—put there to make the place look cozy and “Olde Worlde” (although I haven’t a clue why Olde Worlde props are needed in a pub that was built in 1637). The modestly titled Universal Knowledge A to Z defined music as “the sound obtained by combining sequences or groups of notes of different pitch so that they become acceptable or intelligible to the listener.”

Intelligible is the important word here. It means that we use our intellect to make sense of what’s going on. But if there’s no story, what are we trying to understand?

Before we go any further, have a look at this photo:


And this one:


Let me guess what just happened in your head…

First of all you wondered what the first photo was about and tried to make sense out of it—and failed. Then you looked at the second photo and worked out that it was an image of a rock formation. Then you may have noticed that some of the rocks look like human faces. Then you looked back to the first photo and tried to make more sense of it—to see if there was a human face in there as well.

Well, I can’t guarantee that you saw faces in either photo, but I’ll bet you a free romantic weekend for three in Rochdale that you tried to make sense out of the images. You didn’t try to interpret them just because they are in this book. You would have tried to make sense of them even if you’d found them behind the sofa, because that’s what humans do. We try to make sense out of everything we experience—including music.

When we hear a new piece, we use the large mental library of music we have already heard to give us some context, and we unconsciously construct a set of expectations—we predict that the tune will rise or fall, get louder or softer—and we are often right. We find it pleasant if our expectations are frustrated occasionally, but we don’t expect to be wildly donkey. Rather like the way you didn’t expect the word “donkey” just then.

Our memories of all the pieces we have heard in the past don’t have to be accurate—and we are not looking for perfect copies. It’s a bit like watching social interactions and guessing what’s going to happen next because you have seen similar situations develop before—so you can see that the girl across the street is about to kiss the man she just met, or that the group of people by the bus stop are listening to a joke and waiting for the punch line.

Most of us are surprisingly expert listeners—and if you need confirmation of this, just consider your ability to tell that a piece of music is about to end, even if you’ve never heard the piece before. (If you can’t tell when it’s about to end, it’s usually because the composer has put a lot of effort into misleading you. In the late 1970s it was considered very sophisticated to stop a piece suddenly, in the middle of a

… but, thankfully, the practice largely died out at about the same time people stopped burning joss sticks at rock concerts.)

Obviously we don’t begin life with this ability to compare new experiences to old ones. As babies we have to build up our libraries of “what’s going on?” from scratch and we accept new things easily because we have nothing to compare them with. In his book Sophie’s World, the novelist-philosopher Jostein Gaarder points out that if Granddad starts to hover in the air during a family meal, the baby will calmly accept it while everyone else in the family will be reduced to baffled panic.6 Babies live in a world of contented, if rather smelly, bewilderment until they gradually build up a set of “this is normal; that is peculiar” rules.

To build up a pattern of expectations, we try to match new sights and sounds to ones we are already familiar with. In the case of the photos, many of us can “see” faces in the second image even though there are no faces there. If you measured up the eye and nose positions of the sandstone “faces,” you would find they were nothing like real ones.

And for those of you who are losing your equanimity wondering what the first photo is of, it was just there on my phone one morning. I think it’s a flash photo of the fluff inside my trouser pocket. My girlfriend and I spent two or three happy minutes trying to work out what it was, and I thought I’d share the thrill with you.

But let’s extract ourselves from my trouser pocket and get back to the music.

Some of your muscles, like your heart and lungs, are designed to keep moving without conscious instruction. Other muscles, such as those in your legs, arms, and hands, generally need to be told to act by your brain. But muscles don’t like doing nothing. Your legs and arms, and various other parts of you, continue to move, even when you’re asleep. The reason muscles keep moving is so they can retain some sort of fitness and readiness to obey your next instruction—even if it’s only to stretch out an arm to turn the alarm clock off. If your muscles allowed you to switch them off completely, the less frequently used ones would wither away, and eventually you would encounter a situation in which they couldn’t save your life.

So there you are: involuntary muscle movement helps you and the rest of the human race to survive.

The same thing can be said of human brain activity. The brain is always desperate for stimulation. Turning off isn’t an option. The only way it can retain its ability to keep you alive is by keeping itself in shape by thinking about something or other.

But the brain doesn’t like being overstimulated either. Overstimulation leads to panic-like states.

So your brain can’t be turned off, and it doesn’t like being over-or under-stimulated. As Adrian North and David Hargreaves explain, “the brain works most effectively when moderately aroused; for example, it would be hard to write an essay while feeling sleepy or very anxious.”7

One of the reasons we love music is that it is an excellent way of providing moderate brain stimulation and giving pleasure at the same time. In Philip Ball’s excellent phrase, music “is quite simply a gymnasium for the mind.”8

But there is, of course, much more to music than its capacity to keep your brain in shape. It can, for example, be a powerful emotional stimulant, as we will see in the next chapter.