Words and Music

On my refrigerator I have a ceramic magnet that says “Poetry is music in words.” An old boyfriend gave that to me, years and years ago, long before I started to write seriously. Even then I loved language, loved it as much as I loved music (which was one of our main points of contact.)

To this day, lyrics matter to me. It’s not just how the melody sounds, it’s how the words sound that generally make me love a song. Generally: I can like a song that has lyrics that clunk, but I won’t love it. For example, U2’s “Window in the Sky” has a line that makes me wince every time I hear it. I rather like the first half: “But love left a window in the skies”, but the second half is amateurish: “To love I rhapsodize.” To me, it’s absolutely clear that that second half was written basically to rhyme ‘in the skies’ with ‘rhapsodize.’ It probably wouldn’t bother me quite so much if it were ‘Of love I rhapsodize’, but as it stands, it clanks.

One of the reasons I’m loving the Shins so much is the music in the lyrics. One particular bit from “Red Rabbits” make me sigh happily every time I hear it: “I still owe you for the hole in the floor / And the ghost in the hall”. Why? The repeating long ‘o’ sound, in ‘owe’, ‘hole’ and ‘ghost’ and the way (as sung) the vowel sound in ‘floor’ and ‘hall’ are so alike. Years ago, I saw a documentary on the Celtic music scene in eastern Canada and in it, Mary Jane Lamond talked about how, in Gaelic, rhymes are based on vowel sounds, not on word endings (as in English). Since then, I’ve been much more aware of vowel sounds echoing each other.

This is such a part of music enjoyment for me that it always brings me up short when I realize not everyone is the same way. My sister, for example. For her, it’s all about the music; if she listens to lyrics, she doesn’t remember them. I’ll ask her opinion of a song by quoting lyrics, and she’ll just look at me, blankly, before reminding me that she doesn’t remember songs that way.

So which camp are you in? Do you remember songs by their lyrics? Or is it only the music itself that matters?


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cherry Red
    Feb 15, 2007 @ 00:47:00

    It won’t surprise you that it’s the lyrics that I remember (and love) most about a song. Though I do love a song with many parts put together ia a beautiful way. A song wth great harmonies makes me want to sing. I had many years of choir as a contralto–which is almost always harmony. 🙂

    But in the end it’s lyrics.



  2. Tess
    Feb 15, 2007 @ 11:49:00

    Definitely the lyrics. That’s why I love Kate Bush’s music so much – her lyrics are amazing!


  3. Cathryn
    Feb 16, 2007 @ 17:57:00


    Though when I’m writing, I listen only to music without lyrics (or lyrics that I don’t understand–Spanish, for example, would be okay).


  4. Katy Cooper
    Feb 16, 2007 @ 22:21:00

    It used to be I couldn’t listen to music at all when I was writing. I’m not currently doing a lot of narrative writing–the actual storytelling–but I’m finding that music (without words I can understand) helps distract the four-year in my mind, the part that needs some “New! Shiny!” every few minutes or so. If that part is occupied, then the rest of my head–especially the creative part–can focus on the work I want to do.

    I’m curious to see what will happen when I sit down to actual tell the story as a novel: will I need silence or will I need to keep distracting the four-year old?


  5. Barbara Wallace
    Feb 19, 2007 @ 21:22:00

    That’s a hard question to answer because while there are some songs with lyrics I’ll never forget, it was the way they were set to music that made them unforgettable. There’s something about the rhythm. In a way, I suppose that’s what makes a good poem memorable as well. At least to me. The words are written as if set to music. For example, “Whose woods are these? I think I know.” has a definite rhythm that makes the sentence unforgettable.

    BTW, for what it’s worth, I can’t write to music with lyrics. The words interfere with my own.


  6. Cherry Red
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 03:10:00

    They talk about which is more important (the melody or the words) in the movie Music and Lyrics. Go see it. You’ll adore it. I do. 🙂


  7. Tess
    Feb 21, 2007 @ 11:32:00

    I find I listen to music more when I edit, than when I’m doing the first draft or trying to figure out plot problems.


  8. Katy Cooper
    Feb 21, 2007 @ 20:47:00

    I don’t know what it will be like when I actually sit down to write the narrative part of the story, but working on the plot, on the characters, putting everything I’ve been thinking into words, is helped by having music to distract the distractable part of my head.

    It’s as if the music frees me to pay attention to the part of my head that thinks without thinking (if that makes any sense at all…)


  9. Trackback: December 19, 2008: Words and Music, Round Two « Katy Cooper

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