By Sean Davis
Musicians take a variety of approaches to composition; in the world of popular music alone several schools of thought inform the process of song writing. John Lennon insisted on writing meaningful, poetic lyrics bathed in metaphors and expression; while Paul McCartney’s focus was on musical precision, making sure every note was carefully planned and perfectly executed. McCartney was well-known for filling in melodies with nonsensical syllables, replacing them with words later (and often with John’s aid). This compositional discontinuity is found not only in modern popular styles, but also throughout all western musical history. Chopin was famous for laboring over minute details for hours, trying to discover the perfect combination of tones. Monteverdi believed in the concept of text dictating the flow and direction of the music, going so far as to break the fundamental rules governing musical composition at the time. Regardless of how one composes, the end result will almost always beg questions from listeners. What inspired such and such song? What did you mean by this lyric? I really love the chords in that song, where did you come up with that? It is these questions, and more, that spawned the fields of musical criticism, music theory, and continue to guide people into a musical life. The problem with such questions, however, is that the creative process is almost always just as unique as the individual creator; there is no blanket truth we can ascribe to song-writers and composers that will reveal an objective musical process for creating good music. What we can discover through analytical and historic study, are commonalities that might provide useful insight into how we can discover our own unique musical identities. By understanding what aided those who came before us, we can capitalize on that information, and possibly use it to enhance the evocative powers of our own compositions.
Let us examine the two different approaches used by Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both systems, which is probably why the music that came from the collaboration between these two was so expressive. Lennon’s practice of allowing the text do the work for you is not new, as mentioned earlier the baroque composer Monteverdi famously claimed that the music should follow the expressive motions of the text. This idea can create wonderfully striking relationships with the listener, every word reflected in some musical gesture; we see this notion take form in Lennon’s famous single “Imagine,” the harmony is relatively simple, however the focus on major 7ths and circuitous, repetitive progressions signify a dream-like, ethereal atmosphere. We can surmise from Lennon’s view on composition that he probably wrote the words first, and then crafted the music around them, trying to match the emotions he felt were in the lyrics. Composing like this is effective for many, however it does exhibit a few pitfalls. When the music takes a subordinate role to lyrics, very often it fails to express all that it can. In other words, the music may not live up to its full potential. I may be crucified for suggesting this, but in my opinion this dilemma is the main problem with the music of Bob Dylan. Lyrically speaking, his songs are evocative, poetic and worthy of great praise; however, the music is stale, boring, and goes on far too long without variation. Also, many times when the words predate the music, it can be difficult to find a way to seamlessly integrate the text with the musical syntax. Clunky transitions, awkward phrases and misconception of text are often the result of a poor marriage between lyrics and music.
Paul McCartney approached song-writing from a different point of view, he would sweat over the harmony or melody of a song long before even considering the words. When a composer or song-writer creates in this manner the instrumental aspect of the music tends to be just as important, if not more so than the words. Focusing on the purely musical allows for a wider range of expression and interaction between musical devices, thus increasing the music’s ability to signify deep and meaningful concepts. When listening to the opening bars of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” one can commiserate with the singer’s confusion and dejection. The progression sequences down by fifths, cycling through all of the chords in A minor. The descending lines coupled with the interaction of the piano chord voices evoke a musical atmosphere separate from the lyrics. When we finally hear the words, the music has already set the scene for us, coloring our interpretation from the onset. These kinds of expressive devices come from a learned set of syntactical symbols, arranged in various ways to extract an emotional (or physical, or psychological, etc…) response. Most people are familiar in some way with how most songs unfold: two or more contrasting sections presented with lyric alteration guiding the listener from beginning to end. Of course there are any number of variations on this framework; the fact is that because we know what to expect, due to exposure to these symbols over and over again (via radio, television, dance clubs, internet, etc…), we develop a sense of music’s ability to signify. The skilled composer and/or song-writer has such an understanding of these symbols that she/he is able to utilize them to either fulfill, or stifle, an expectation. However, ignoring the capacity of lyrics to resonate with individuals can cause even the most well-constructed songs to fail to connect. Sometimes when composers, especially song-writers, place too much emphasis on the instrumental and non-verbal in their songs the listener is left with a vague wash of expression devoid of any real form. In the worst case scenario the words and music are almost contradictory, would anyone have listened to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” if the title was “Please don’t hurt or murder me,” and the lyrics grim depictions of armed robbery and muggings? The imagery of the words would not have matched the imagery of the music. This kind of extreme case rarely occurs, however poorly worded songs can cause a disconnect with the listener. Musical creators do not want poetic lyrics with drab music, or poetic music with drab lyrics, the true artist finds a medium between the two, balancing the forces and dipping one way or the other as the situation calls.
It is our job as musicians to learn from these techniques, and to use them to further enhance musical expression. The famous axiom “you must learn to walk before you can run” rings true here, for we must learn the language of musical signification before we can create artful music, capable of expressing our most intimate thoughts and desires. Want to be a rock-star? Want to write the next great song, and not the next hit pop-tune, but the next “Erlkönig” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”? Then your greatest assets are your ears, listen to as much music as possible, and to the greatest variety of music possible. Learn the symbols and how they manifest themselves in music, use that knowledge to your advantage to create new styles and new symbols, and music will continue to grow in expressive capacity.