Squaring the Circle

This piece is gratefully dedicated to a comrade and fellow blogger who unleashed a violent flood of ideas with a simple question: “What do you value more in music: sound or lyrics?” As the flood raged on, it became clear that there are three distinct points to be made when answering the query.

Point #1: Framing the question. It’s been my long-held belief that lyrics are secondary (perhaps even tertiary) to the musical experience. That is to say, above all else, instrumentals are the most valuable asset to any piece. Upon further review, however, it’s obvious this logic is flawed. The reason being, the human voice box is itself an instrument. This is not meant to be complimentary of humans (i.e. some humans are born with sub-optimal instruments). Instead, this is a basic exercise in defining terms.

In its simplest form, “sound” is merely the movement of air in patterns that are interpretable by the human brain. To communicate, humans have been equipped with an elaborate device, producing meaningful sound with minimal effort—when set to music, we call these sounds “lyrics.” The fact remains, vocal sounds (i.e. lyrics) are the product of vocal instruments. For this reason, the choice between “sound or lyrics” seems inherently redundant. What the question is really asking is whether one prefers non-verbal sound or verbal sound. The connotation is that the latter choice contains meaning, while the former does not.

Point #2: Our perception of meaning.  The ability to perceive sound has (in part) provided a selective advantage for the survival of our species. It is therefore a critical and ancient sense. As implied earlier, there are two defining features of the human voice—the sound created and the meaning it carries. The most obvious (and easily understood) source of meaning is contained within words (i.e. lyrics). If the question at hand is to decide between language (i.e. lyrics) or non-verbal sound (i.e. instrumentals), the answer is simple: Instrumentals are undoubtedly the most valuable component of music. To place higher emphasis on language is to select against the vast majority of available music. This includes non-English music, classical music, techno-groove (i.e. Daft Punk), good music with terrible lyrics (i.e. T-Pain), good music with uninterpretable lyrics (i.e. Red Hot Chili Peppers), etc. etc. To hold lyrics paramount is extremely limiting to one’s musical arsenal.

More importantly, it assumes the richest source of meaning is drawn from language. By definition, this seems misinformed. The richest source of meaning should arise from that which has no finite definition whatsoever. Language contains defined meaning, non-lingual sound does not. In this way, instrumental interpretation is infinite, lyrical interpretation is finite.

Point #3: The blur between words and images. Film scores provide an opportunity to test our perceived notions of words and imagery. A movie soundtrack with no lyrics is often dull when heard outside the context of a film. Yet, when played to the images of great cinematography, a seemingly lackluster score can transform into something strongly compelling. This begs the question of how our mind perceives words and images and whether those perceptions are interchangeable in the context of music.

It seems likely that in the absence of interpretable lyric, our brain finds poignant meaning in images that are brand new. This is especially intriguing when considering that the images by themselves would seem just as boring as the score in isolation. One thing is clear, the marriage of instrumentals and film is synergistic in ways beyond our comprehension. Whether our minds intentionally assign higher value to this synergy in order to compensate for a perceived lack of meaning is a fascinating question for another day.

Featured image by Valerios Art



2 thoughts on “Squaring the Circle

  1. Appreciate the dedication! “Language contains defined meaning, non-lingual sound does not. In this way, instrumental interpretation is infinite, lyrical interpretation is finite”. Couldn’t agree more. In that sense, it would seem as if music has the ability to elevate language beyond the realm of its traditional boundaries. This might explain why R. Kelly is trapped in the closet in more ways than one.


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