I recently spent a few happy hours listening to some of the songs from my youth, and I was struck by the amazing power that music has to cut across the barriers of time. Not only can you remember lyrics word-for-word after decades, but those “musical old friends” can transport you back to a time and place with such amazing clarity that you can remember exactly who you were with, and even the emotions you were feeling at the time.
Why is it that songs reach places in your soul that words alone cannot touch? Is it simply that music acts as an emotional megaphone for the words of a song, or is it perhaps the very ambiguity of lyrics that allows songs to become intensely personal?
Songs have all the power of the written word, but sheet music also tells the performer when to be loud, quiet, slow, fast, short and sharp, mellow and lazy. As a result, the singer knows not only which words to sing, but exactly how they should be delivered, to give the emotional content the composer desired.
There are also unspoken musical cues that people recognize, often unconsciously. Before the first word is sung in Sunday Bloody Sunday, a snare drum primes our emotions for a song about war and conflict. And the simple guitar strumming in Hey There Delilah and Lullaby let’s us know we are about to hear a story about life.
For me the lyrics in songs are able to reach places that few written works can touch. And, oddly enough, I think it is because the need to fit song lyrics into a specific space often leaves much unsaid. Song lyrics have the unusual advantage that they don’t have to make sense, as long as the music is good. Don’t believe me? Try Country Feedback by R.E.M. – a well-known song that seems complete nonsense, as far as I can tell. Despite that, there are phrases in there that touch me and that I feel connected to.
In the same way that horoscopes are deliberately vague, the very ambiguity of songs allows the listener to insert their own story, so that songs seems to have been written just for them – perfectly fitting their circumstances of romance, anger, happiness, or whatever else is on their minds at the time.
Listening to those songs from long ago, I can remember the impact they had on me very clearly. But times change, and the music changes with it. Characters from songs such as Mr. Clean by The Jam, I now see as myself, and I recognize that the emotional connection I used to have with that song stemmed from jealousy, and a class gap I never thought I would bridge. Others songs still have the same emotional effect, but the people have changed. For example, the person I think about when first listening to For You by Tracy Chapman is no longer the person I think of today.
For me personally, music has helped me through some of the toughest times in my life. They have been old friends, always there ready to offer just the right words, be on my side, and to understand me – perhaps at a level that no person ever could. And I know I am not alone in this. I know a friend who listened to Better Man repeatedly, almost certainly because she felt trapped in her relationship. And how many times have people used We Are the Champions to give themselves a boost with lyrics like “And bad mistakes, I’ve made a few, I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face – But I’ve come through”
Music taps into the soul in ways that nothing else does. And writing this blog post has been easily the hardest one to date – every time I sat down to write, hours would vanish in a haze of musical memories without a single word being committed to ‘paper’.
So, while I could wax-lyrical about my own musical experiences, I would prefer instead to hear your stories. Which songs / lyrics touched you, and why? To that end I started the ball rolling on a wiki site called lyric.wetpaint.com. Please feel free to drop by and add your own favorite lyrics, and the stories of why they are so special. I look forward to hearing them.