Some lyrics are stories, and so there’s a simple answer to the question of how much of a lyric needs to be understood: darn near all of it. The beauty of story lyrics is in the way you say things, and the imagery you use.
But most lyrics aren’t “first this happened then that happened” lyrics. Most lyrics describe stories, people and situations, and in those kinds of lyrics the meaning of any particular line or phrase might be clear, but also might be a bit tricky to understand:
“Tomorrow Never Knows” (Lennon & McCartney)
…that ignorance and hates may mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not living, it is not living
What makes lyrics like that work? How important is it that the meaning isn’t obvious at first encounter?
If you like complexity in lyrics, I think you’ll like this answer: the success of a lyric isn’t necessarily how easily the lyric is understood. It can be argued that a lyric for which you understand everything the first time you hear it may rob the listener of something they usually really like: figuring out what it’s all about.
This is not at all a defence for writing lyrics that amount to garbage. I believe that a good lyric needs to provide layers of potential interaction with the audience:
- An initial layer that makes superficial sense, even if it’s not what the writer had specifically in mind.
- A deeper layer in which listeners can find more powerful meaning, and more intricate relationships between the various words, phrases, sentences and verses… they start to “get it.”
If ultimately the audience never quite understands what you intended with your lyric, that’s not a failure of the lyric. In fact it’s not a failure at all.
As long as your lyric makes an emotional connection, and provides some level — any level — of understanding to the audience, you’ve done what a good lyric should do.
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