If you want to know what a word means, you’ll look it up in a dictionary. So we say that a dictionary gives us the meaning.
But not in the music world. Not to split hairs, but if you’re a songwriter, looking a word up in the dictionary gives you the definition, not the meaning. We use dictionaries to define words.
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Meaning, at least in the world of music, comes about by looking inside ourselves to see what the words are doing to our emotions.
And what the words are doing to our emotions may or may not come from the actual definition of those words. In many songs, definition takes a back seat to meaning.
As a songwriter you need to know this because no one is going to the dictionary to find out what your songs mean. The only thing they do is to look inward. A song means whatever the listener’s heart is telling them.
So if your songs aren’t touching some part of the emotional soul of the listener (and if I’m right that no one looks up words from a lyric in a dictionary), then you’ve just written a song with meaningless words.
The only sense of meaning that is relevant in songwriting is the emotions the music is generating. Songs are about feelings. It’s possible to write a song with lyrics that are sad, but miss the mark entirely on making the audience feel sad.
Words, at least when they’re put in the form of a lyric, are manipulated by the music that carries those words to the listener. Whoever said, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” would have made a great songwriter.
Sometimes when songs fail to generate the right mood, the choice of words is at fault. Perhaps they’re too stiff and unemotional. Perhaps they don’t sound like the kind of words you’d likely say.
But more often than not, a song that misses the mark when it comes to generating emotions is failing to create a powerful partnership between components of that song, such as tempo, key choice, instrumentation/production, and so on.
Meaning in your music doesn’t come about because you used the right word. Meaning is determined by the emotion of the moment. It’s why instrumentals work. They don’t have words, but they sure have meaning.
As you write your songs, you need to be constantly assessing whether or not you’ve taken the right steps to generate emotions in your audience. And lyrics are just a small part of that equation.
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