Some thinking aloud on the significance of lyrics in music....

What's the word? Word up...

I played a minor part in a Facebook discussion last week on the importance or otherwise of lyrics in music. As a teenage soul fiend in the 70s, I was never short of rock fans telling me that their music was superior to mine, usually because it, putatively, had smarter or more meaningful lyrics. Personally, I cannot see how ‘he’s a green manalishi with a two-pronged crown’ could be considered in any way objectively better than ‘summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street’. In fact, at this distance, the former looks pretty pretentious, whilst the latter looks direct, human and exuberant. But, however one might judge that random opposition, what is the significance of lyrics at all, when so much of the great music throughout time doesn’t even have any? If music reflects or creates thoughts, sensations and emotions, how much of what is communicated comes from the words and how much from the way it sounds?

The answer can only be that it depends on specifics. If we take, at one pole, the spoken word and at the other, wordless music, it’s clear that both have much to work with. Poetry, especially read out loud, has music in choice and rhythms of words and in the intonations. And anyone who has heard a good actor reading a book out loud is aware of what additional input comes from the way it is delivered. And away from recognisable art works: this year sees the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. It has been featured on many tv programs recently, and it remains an intensely moving experience. Looking at and listening to the film, this is not just about the importance of the moment or the content of the words - as profound as these things are - it is also to do with King’s delivery. Shaped, no doubt, by his southern Baptist Church background, it is almost musical; the words are almost sung. The same words in a neat, chatty, contemporary, English middle-class accent (think Tony Blair, for a moment) could never be as stirring. But then a great vocal presence alone won’t do: the delivery, in profound tones, of something banal or absurd is a common device for humour in comedy drama.

At the other end, think of the darkly moving second movement of Beethoven’s 7th: the addition of words could only ever trivialise it. There is also the ‘Nessun Dorma’ moment, when a nation of British football fans, most of whom had never paid the slightest attention to opera before, found themselves moved to tears by an aria sung incomprehensibly in Italian, because of the stunning beauty of the music and emotion in Pavarotti’s voice. This tells us that there is something that feels ‘bigger’ than words. Indeed, as Marcel Duchamp pointed out - discussing visual art forms - when all that can be said about an art work has been said, there is still something left over; something outside of language. The same applies to music.

Experience precedes language. Most animals do not have language, but they are intensely of aware of each other and the world – their lives depend on it. This applies to us too. Having this great tool – language – we have become language centred and we tend not to acknowledge all the other ways communication comes to us, even though we recognise and absorb these things on a subliminal level.

The discussion I took part in was about northern soul. There is certainly something about northern soul, and soul music in general, that is more than the words. That it is called ‘soul’ at all speaks volumes, telling us, as it does, that this music goes somewhere beyond the prosaic to the place where the spirit (whatever we perceive that to be) resides. Great art is direct: it by-passes language and goes somewhere deeper; somewhere that we cannot articulate. The characteristics of the sounds in music have meaning for us. Even without words, voices and musical sounds can communicate love, pain, rage, ecstasy, desolation and more. ‘River Deep Mountain High’ contains a crescendo which is effectively a simulated orgasm (at least, I'm assuming it's simulated). As the music gathers pace and intensity, and Tina screeches her way off the Richter Scale, the only words are 'oh', 'baby' and 'yeah', but we get the message.

That might appear to make the case for words being more important, as they are more controlled and they speak to the intellect. But words themselves are only metaphors; they're not the thing itself, and that makes them slippery and unreliable: in any verbal exchange, what was understood might not be what was meant. And what if the words only lead anyway to what might have gone in via sensation? And don’t Tina’s screams tell us more than any words she might use?

The great appeal of northern soul stems from the fact that it has the best of all worlds: it has the pace and vigour of rock, so you can dance to it energetically; it has the spiritual intensity of gospel music in the voices; and it often features orchestration, so it has some of the musical breadth and emotional density of classical music too. You want great lyrics on top of that?! Well it has those as well. Although most soul songs are love songs, there are many different kinds, and there seems to be a soul song for almost every kind of relationship situation. This is not a trivial thing. Love, for most of us, is the most important thing in life and the thing that causes us most joy and despair. We want art-forms that say things to us about our lives. But even then, there are many northern soul tracks which are not about love: the music emerged during the Civil Rights struggle, and many songs refer to that, either directly or coded within a more personal lyric (the Valentines’ ‘Breakaway’ springs to mind).

The great voices in soul music often combine with heart-rending lyrics. Sometimes it seems deceptively simple: there is a moment in Garnet Mimms’ ‘Looking for You’, when the words ‘I want more than memories’ drop into a brief musical space, climbing out into ‘baby, I need you’, slipping then into a brief plaintiff string section. The three emotional punches take your breath away, and this is no accident or stroke of luck: this is a very sophisticated form of communication. When the words and music work perfectly together, the effect can be sublime. Add to all this that you can get lost in your own emotions dancing to the heart-like beat, and the whole package becomes irresistible - a transcendent experience.

So which matters most? This is a question that cannot be answered. Some music is heavily reliant the lyrics (rap, very sparse folk music, Gil Scott Heron’s output, for example); some otherwise decent melodies can be murdered by lyrics that jar or embarrass; and much great music has no lyrics at all. Plus, there is the matter of personal preference. For me, as an incurable romantic, it is how the music ‘feels’ that counts, and that places the lyrics in second place, after the way the music sounds. In northern soul, this is actually tested by the fact that some tunes exist both with and without a vocal track, generally dividing opinions more or less equally. Given the choice between Luther Ingram’s ‘If It’s All the Same to You Babe’ and ‘Exus Trek’ (its instrumental), I want the latter – it says more with less.

Stephen Riley, Manchester, 25 September 2013.