Songwriting in the studio

Songwriting and the Meaning of Music

When you think of the word meaning as it applies to your songs, are you talking about the picture that gets created from the lyrics? Or perhaps you’re talking about the picture that gets created from the sound of the instruments?

For me, I pull more meaning out of the instrumental/vocal performance of a song than I do out of the words. Yes, good lyrics are vital, but to me, the meaning of music is what I’m getting from the notes, not so much the words.

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Another way of saying this: you can speak a line of lyric, and get a certain sense of meaning and definition from those words. Just reading them, it may not even be possible to say definitively what is being said or implied, as there could be many possible meanings depending on how the line is read.

But once music is added, you create a meaning through the music to the extent that it almost doesn’t matter what the words really are — you can tell what is meant through the sound of the music.

Here’s a little experiment to try: If you’ve written and recorded a song recently, try dropping the vocal tracks and listen to just the instruments, and try to hear it as a song intended to be an instrumental.

What do you hear? Is this instrumental different in any way to other songs you’ve written? Without the vocals, is there meaning in your music? And if you can’t hear your track in that way, what does that mean? That your music is devoid of meaning?

And if you find that your instrumental tracks just sound like meaningless fluff until the words are added, what do you want to do about that?

Everyone has their own way to look at music, and I’m not proposing that everyone needs to have my vision of what good music is: what a boring musical world that would be!

But I think this is my attempt to prompt you to listen to all aspects of your music — the lyrics, of course, but also your melodies, your chord choices, and especially your instrumental tracks — and hopefully come to the realization that everything you put into a song contributes to musical meaning.

And if you haven’t really done much to differentiate your song from all the other songs in your chosen genre, you may be inadvertently creating musical wallpaper, when you thought you were creating something much deeper and more meaningful.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Practically every John Prine song is a basic I, IV, V chord progression or some minor variation there of. As a mediocre musician trying to be a good song writer, this fact gave me the inspiration to believe its the melody and the lyrics that make the song even if the basic chords rarely change.

    • I think you’re right — There’s nothing wrong with trying to be more creative with chords, but I’ve always felt that time spent in creating more imaginative lyrics and better melodies is usually time better spent.

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