Music or Lyrics?

If you ask any "serious" (indie?) pop musician what's the most important aspect of their songs, I am sure they would most/all say: the lyrics. They spend so much time and effort on the words, and view this as "what they are saying," which is, to their mind, the reason for writing the song in the first place. (There was a piece by Suzanne Vega in the NY Times a couple of months back.)

But as listeners, what do we think?

For me, for most songs, the words are pretty much irrelevant. (In fact, I can't recite the full lyrics to any song, and can't even make them out on lots of the music I listen to.)

Instead, it's three things:

1. The musical hook

2. The *sound* of the voice(s)

3. The sound of the instrumentation.

In short, it's all about the music, and very little about the lyrics.

Or, to put it another way: I could imagine lots of different lyrics to many of the songs I love, and the song remains the same. But change the music? It becomes an entirely different song.

For example: Take any early passionate U2 anthem. Surely they could be written about other topics, while retaining the same music? Isn't it the music that makes the song compelling?

To be sure: With many/most great songs, we do sing along, and the words are part of our experience. But is it really their *meaning* that's important, or rather their *sound* in the context of the music as a whole? ---I think the latter, and the words could have been different and the song just as popular and compelling.

There are, I'm sure, some exceptions to this rule, where the words are absolutely crucial to making the song compelling. But not too many, I don't think.
There are also some examples of really good songs/music that have really bad lyrics that detract from the experience. It is not necessarily the voices, though that can also be part of the effect, but the just incongrousness of some of the lyrics that just to me at least don't go with the musical flow.
Music doesn't need lyrics any more than the words of Shakespeare needs to be put to music.

However, if a song tells a story, has good lyrics or is otherwise very poetic, it's a nice bonus to the music.

Even bad or strange lyrics can be a blast. I get the greatest kick out of "Rock Lobster" by the B-52's. It's such a fun song. And I find "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen eternally endearing even if I don't have a clue what the singer is saying.
Jimjoyce25, Interesting comment you make. For me, it depends entirely on what music is playing. I've always thought Bob Dylan was never about the music. Similarly, for me Rush, Boston, and ELP were never about the lyrics. The Beatles were great and are still a great listen because they melded the two so well on so many albums.

I wonder if 'lyrics-above-all' people listen to opera (which I agree is better when you understand the words, but still nice when you don't), fado, bossa nova, etc. I don't understand but a few words of Portuguese, and almost nothing in fado, but I adore listening to it.
if its Joni Mitchel, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed or Tom Waits (all poets IMO) for instance, I listen to lyrics but in most cases I prefer not to have vocals at all. The sound of vocals is often intrusive for me...
Gotta have both. I can listen to music with out words, but only for a while. I like hearing what is being said. I hate poetry untill it has a tune added.
For pop music, the combination of music, lyrical meaning and lyrical phonetic sound (even if you didn't understand the language it's sung in) is what I listen for.

The Beatles understood this and often succeeded in incorporating all three elements in their compositions. Sometimes silly, sometimes nonsense, often with meaning, intended or otherwise.
This is something my wife and I go back and forth about. She is a words person and is much more interested in what the songwriter has to say. I'm more about the music and sometimes don't know/care what message the song is sending. On the otherhand, like Philjolet, there are some artists who are so gifted lyrically that the words become as important (and in some case more important) than the music. Or better still, the words and music are crafted in such a way as to complement each other and push things to new heights of songcrafting. A few artists come to mind:

Bob Dylan
Joni Mitchell
Jackson Browne
Rosanne Cash
Bruce Springsteen

I'm sure I could come up with a few more but these are to ones that off the top of my head really bring the music and lyrics together in a powerful way.
Lyrics, if you can hear them, which you can't on most of the recordings that are produced today. Perhaps it is the focus to listen that most people in the iPod age refuse to do. Multi tasking rules, so little real listening ever occurs. The tune needs to carry the music, not the lyrics.
"I would have made this instrumental
but the words got in the way."
-- Andy Partridge (of XTC)
-- "No Language in our Lungs"
Music, just music, communicates deeply within one’s soul. Words are however the most relevant, most effective, and the most powerful source of communication. Truly great literature can be as moving as great music. A poorly written or poorly conveyed lyric is like poorly written literature – I’ll take good music any day. The combination of beautiful music and beautiful lyrics can be as moving as the best works of literature and the best composed music combined. When lyrical composition is great, it should convey meaning and feeling as deeply as does music; of course the way in which lyrics are conveyed is as relevant to mood and emotion as – or more so, than words alone (we call this music).
Maybe I can put the point like this:

Real poetry stands alone: It has no need for instrumental background.

But are there any rock lyrics that rise to this level? I don't know of any. Viewed as poetry, rock lyrics, at best, are third rate, or perhaps fifth rate, poetry. Without the music, no one would read them.

I agree with Mark: Good lyrics can make a good song better, a great song even greater. But the value of a pop song is measured by the music, not the words: Without good or great music, no pop song can be good or great, no matter how good the lyrics. And many pop songs can be good or great even with inconsequential lyrics. (The early Beatles being perhaps the best example.)

I think this even holds true of Dylan: IMO both how compelling his voice is (relatively early Dylan) and the quality of the hooks in his music are under-appreciated. There have been compelling covers of his songs that work primarily on musical levels (Along the Watchtower, Mr Tambourine Man, It Ain't Me Babe). However, IMO no one gets the songs emotionally right the way he does, and that's reflected in his voice.

His lyrics may be among the best in pop music, but they're still not great poetry. But many of the songs are great songs, due to their music and his voice.
I don't know about rock lyrics not able to be poetry. Some of Joni Mitchell's lyrics I have read to others as stand alone poetry. From her albums Blue, Court and Spark and Hejira, these lyrics hold their own.
Great poetry may not make for great lyrics, either. Synergy between words and music, when it happens, is a great thing. The music of John Hiatt, Dar Williams, and Marshall Crenshaw (to pick 3 off the top of my head) might be appealling on its own, but it's great enhanced by their word craft. Patti Smith produces a very different kind of synergy, Brian Eno yet another.

Each of these artists produces words that might not qualify as great poetry, but IMHO each does produce wonderful lyrics.


"Sweet Regina's gone to China, Newsweek on her knee. While far below, the curlews call from strangely stunted trees."

Brian Eno's wonderful lyric ain't notable poetry in my book, but it's a near perfect lyric
can be any, all or none of the above....
If you are asking me to choose one over the other - it would be music vs lyrics - for sure. In general, I prefer instrumentals to songs, given the option. To my mind, words tend to anchor the song. Music without words....that's something magical.
Probably 90% of the time I hear the human voice as a musical instrument with almost no attention to the actual lyrics. Funny a few years a go my girlfriend asked why I spent so much time listening to sad songs. She thought I was so engrossed in the language of the musician when I was actually completly oblivious to what was being said.

My 19 year old son is a budding and blues boogie woogie musician. He writes with and without lyrics. I listen to his lyrics but still hear his voice as a musical instrument.

Shameless plug from dad: Google "Chase Garrett" or go to youtube to hear him. He has a CD for sale at CD
A song must include a good musical tone for me to truly appreciate it. However, I do find lyrics important to. I like to listen to music that relates to life (and specifically could relate to my life). Of course, this does not apply when I am listening to entirely instrumental pieces for the beauty of the instruments.