MUS202 music appreciation

words & music

A range from NO RELATIONSHIP to very intimate relationships


David Byrne (Talking Heads)

‘Lyrics are a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they otherwise would.’
(approximate quote; I haven’t found the original source)


Any relationship?

“Grey Seal” is another lyric I don’t understand.  Actually it is one of my favorite songs.

-- Elton John, notes to CD
release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road


“Grey Seal” (lyrics by Bernie Taupin)

Why’s it never light on my lawn,
Why does it rain and never say good day to the newborn?

On the big screen they showed us a sun,

But not as bright and life is the real one

It’s never quite the same as the real one

And tell me grey seal

How does it feel

To be so wise

To see through eyes

That only see what's real

Tell me grey seal


I never learned why meteors were formed

I only farmed in schools that were so worn and torn

If anyone can cry then so can I

I read books and draw life from the eye.

All my life's drawings from the eye.

Your mission bells were wrought by ancient men

The roots were formed by twisted roots, your roots were twisted then

I was reborn before all life could die

the Phoenix bird will leave this world to fly

if the Phoenix bird can fly then so can I.


How much sense do lyrics have to make to be effective?

Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light


Words as Sonic Objects

Talking Heads, “I Zimbra” – carefully composed gibberish

Patter songs; William Walton, Façade.


Text painting

A musical gesture reflects the specific sense of the text

Examples:  the singer sings about running or stopping; the accompaniment has fast notes or uses stop-time.  Words about “rising up” might have a rising melody.


Ø  Tight coupling (close or immediate correspondence)

Ø  Loose, or Less Obvious

Ø  diffused” or “permeated”

Ø  Contradictory?

Ø  Ironic


Tight coupling – the gesture in close proximity to the specific text


Weekles, “As Vesta Was Descending” (madrigal)

Macy Gray, “I Try”

Handel, “Myself I Shall Adore” (opera aria)

Cole Porter, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”

Purcell, “Dido’s Lament” (opera aria)

Ø  Eb-A tritone on “trouble”

Ø  Tricky rhythm on second “trouble”

Ø  Descending melodic line, twice, on “laid”

Ø  earth” is on lowest note in the vocal line

Ø  Remember” always starts on the same pitch

Ø  Accented passing tone on “wrongs”


Less Obvious, more poetic

Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (melody, “come down”; harmony = distance)

The Beatles, “Yesterday” -- does falling melodic line really correspond to the past?  Why is “tomorrow” often set to a rising line?  Ask “Annie.”

“I Will Survive,” first performed by Gloria Gaynor (released in October 1978; written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris; according to the Wikipedia entry).  What has survived? Classical music!

·         “classical” strings

·         circle of 5ths progression (listen to the bass line; compare it to the first movement of “Winter,” a Baroque violin concerto by Vivaldi)

·         opening operatic flourish (a diminished 7th chord) on the piano


BUT those are common traits (no similar argument could be made for “The Hustle,” which also uses strings; many, many songs use the circle of 5ths progression).  So it seems it might come down to a question of intention – did the creators of the song arrangement mean those things to connote “survival”?  In my own experience as a composer, I often find that I have incorporated ideas in my music that are more significant than I consciously knew at the time.  Ultimately, the piece is not finished by the composer or performed.  The meaning is completed by you, the listener.


diffused” or “permeated” (my terms) – an idea from the text is spread through a long stretch of time; even the entire piece


·         Glass, Lightning

·         Franz Schubert, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (art song, on TEXTBOOK CD) – the “spinning wheel” is portrayed in the piano part.

·         Dido’s Lament, from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, 1st performed in 1689. -- descending chromatic bass line repeated over and over  often used in Baroque opera to connote doom, death, fate, etc. 

(A piece with a bass line repeated over and over is called a passacaglia.)


This idea is used in several Megadeth songs:

·         “Symphony Of Destruction” – chromatic descending line “marionettes;” the unison of the vocal melody with the accompaniment is also suggestive of “strings attached” and the lack of control or independence.

·         “Skin O’ My Teeth” chromatic descending line “no escape”

·         “This Was My Life” -- chromatic ascending line in 1st part of song ( = hope?); chromatic descending line at end ( = doom?) (guitar passage work also


Along with progressive rock from the 1970’s, metal is the popular genre that incorporates the most references to classical, especially Baroque and Romantic, music.



Melodic direction opposite to word in the text:  June Carter Cash, et al, “Ring of Fire” (sung by Johnny Cash.)  “Down, down, down” goes up, up, up!



Sad or grim words accompanied by happy music:  Lily Allen, “LDN”

Slow (“down tempo”) performances of “Blue Skies,” Irving Berlin.  The use of minor chords, and borrowed minor chords in this song are especially interesting. 


When Words Are Not Enough

Vocables or scatting; SCREAMING (Ex: Judas Priest, “Screaming for Vengeance”)

·         Vocables -- (usually) meaningless syllables that are a regular part of the song text (Fa La La . . .)  “Deck the Halls,” “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” The Proclaimers.

·         Scatting – improvised nonsense syllables that are likely to be different from performance to performance


Note when vocals give way to instrumental solos, as if words are not adequate to express the thoughts and feelings in the song.




Don’t ignore the words . . .

                                    Don’t ignore the music


Thomas de Zengotita, author of Mediated, in an article about American Idol:


. . . don't forget the power of music. American Idol wouldn't be what it is if, say, amateur actors were auditioning. You can disagree with someone about movie stars and TV shows and still be friends.  But you can't be friends with someone who loves the latest boy band, in a totally unironic way, if you are into Gillian Welch.  That's because tastes in pop music go right to the core of who you are, with a depth and immediacy no other art form can match. Music takes hold of you on levels deeper than articulated meaning. That's why words, sustained by music, have such power. There is nothing like a song for expressing who we are.


DC Meckler

Rev March 2009