How do you get a listener to imagine something by using sound alone?
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When we talk about the meaning of a song, we naturally look to the lyric. But music itself (i.e., the notes, chords and rhythms you’re hearing, apart from the lyric) can convey meaning, even if abstractly.
Back in the days of Mozart and Haydn – the Classical era – this kind of meaning (which for the purposes of this article I’ll call musical meaning) was much less thought about and considered. No one listens to Haydn Symphony No. 48 and says, “What do you suppose that piece is about?” Musical meaning, I believe it is fair to say, did not often enter the picture in those days.
But 75-100 years later, by the time composers like Richard Strauss, Wagner, Liszt and other Romantic era composers came along, it was definitely fair to ask the question, “What do you suppose that piece is about?” Even without the title, there’s no question that Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” conveys musical meaning. We can tell, for example, that he likely isn’t describing the flowers in his back garden with that music (unless they exploded in his face).
You could make the case that the pop music equivalent of the Classical era was 1950s rock & roll. Without the words, you’d be hard pressed to listen to the music of Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” (written by Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe) and say that it’s conveying any meaning, just as Haydn’s Symphony No. 48 does not convey much musical meaning. The music for “Teddy Bear” could have been a love song, which it is, but it could have served as the music for a song about a new car, a game of darts, or planting a flower.
The pop music equivalent of the Romantic era was the later 60s. Music began to have meaning which reflected the meaning expressed by the lyric. So it’s rather unlikely that the music for George Harrison’s “Something” could ever serve as the proper setting for a lyric about driving around town in your new car.
And while it may seem obvious that meaning should first come from the lyric, which then informs the music, some songwriters feel that the music should convey meaning first, and then inform the lyric. In an interview with American Songwriter, Paul Simon said of his own writing:
The music always precedes the words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts. Rhythm plays a crucial part in the lyric-making as well. It’s like a puzzle to find the right words to express what the music is saying.
So how do you write music that conveys the kind of meaning that Paul Simon is talking about? How do you create meaning in your music? In other words, how do you inspire a listener to imagine something with music alone?
While much of this is up to personal style (e.g., the musical meaning we derive from Paul Simon’s music will necessarily differ from what we glean from Rush’s music), it’s fair to say that musical meaning can be found in the ways that we stray from expectations.
Rock & roll from the 1950s adhered strongly to accepted song forms of the day, and that’s why the music can work with practically any lyric. By the mid-1960s, that was no longer the case. Verse-chorus formats still abounded, but rather suddenly songwriters were pushing the boundaries and offering unique formal designs, a greatly-expanded chord palette, innovative instrumental techniques, and a generally “Romantic-era” kind of approach to music.
One could write an entire book on how to incorporate meaning into music (and many have – just Google it), but to start, you might try this simple exercise: write an instrumental piece about something. Allow your imagination to run wild. Choose a topic that typically incites an emotional response (death of a friend of family member, for example), and see what you come up with.
There can be almost no doubt that you’ll find yourself experimenting with music that strays from expectations, that challenges even your own ears, and that somehow, without lyrics, creates imagery and meaning in ways you’ll find immensely satisfying.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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