Sound, Song, and Word


The formula goes like this:  sound makes music attractive but words make it stick.  When describing why I pay attention to something, it has to sound good.  But lots of things sound good, too many to keep track of, and the number of times a decade when some genuinely new sound is invented is trivially small — one or two?  So what distinguishes between similar sounds is different songs (i.e. melodies & words).  And words take on prominance precisely at the moment you transition from “that’s a good song” to “that’s a favorite song, one I need to listen to over and over.”

Two caveats are in order here: 

(1) Sometimes sound sticks without words.  After all, I listen to Sonny Rollins over and over, and he’s not the only jazz artist I listen to.  R.E.M.’s big invention was a sound, not songs, and their first three records (Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning) are favorites of my regardless of the incomprehensibility of the words.  It would be useful to theorize when sounds overwhelms words, but this short piece is not the place for me to try.

(2) “Words” doesn’t mean the lyrics as written out on the paper, that is, doesn’t mean “poetry”.  Rather, words includes sung hooks and all manner of vocal personality and approach.  Otis Redding can make lousy or trivial lyrics profound.  Lisa Walker’s (Wussy) lyrics, or the words on The Hot Rock and The Woods (Sleater’-Kinney) can be too dense and full of personal references to parse all the way through.  In each case the words are central to the impact of the songs, because the purpose of lyrics isn’t originality or perfect comprehensibility but affect, shading, mood, sensibility.  None of this is to say words are never poetry — sometimes they are.  Indeed, sometimes they are good prose (cf. Against Me’s New Wave).  It is simply to say that an emphasis on words, which is definitely part of my critical practice, doesn’t mean that words always impact the same way.


2 Responses to “Sound, Song, and Word”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    Maybe the flaw with the above analysis, the reason it seems constraining, overly binding, rather than revelatory, is the word “formula”. I maintain that there are examples where the words really don’t matter. Examples to follow. I also maintain that there are some where the song would be worthless without the words, or with different words — songs that in fact do not sound good, until the words explain to me why it sounds that way. Examples to follow. And, of course, there’s music in languages I don’t understand, which analysis-wise either comes between rock and jazz (there’s vocals, and I can try to feel the vocalists’ expressiveness, but cultural differences might prevent the words from connecting even in translation, which I very rarely seek out) or beyond the far end of jazz (I can hope to fully understand even the densest bebop, but without the language African and Balkan songs remain somewhat beyond my full grasp). None of which stops me from listening.

  2. 2 kmostern

    I will split this into two parts, because there are two different issues going on here. Part one concerns the three category universe (1) songs-in-English / (2) songs-in-other-languages / (3) music-without-words (or “music that is not song”). The other issue takes place entirely without the “songs-in-English” category, and that is your notion that there can be such an intrinsic relationship between sound and words that the idea of a one directional, several step process makes no sense.

    In both cases, I grant you the points you make and wonder whether they have anything to do with what I’ve written.

    Clearly, what makes most jazz or Youssou N’Dour stick is external to the question of words, and I say that in my statement. I even say that requires a kind of theorization I am unable to do at the moment. But what I do say about the role of sound is more significant then you want to give it credit for: I claim that the fact that many things sound alike and genuine sonic innovation is rare means that sound doesn’t explain commitments to specific records. Pointing out that Youssou N’Dour, at his most rock (and I have claimed on this site that “his most rock” describes Rokku mi Rokka), sounds different from Rilo Kiley or Wussy or the Rolling Stones is the first key to understanding the attention we pay to him. That is, his sound is awfully innovative to our ears. Now, is he the innovator we believe him to be? Who knows? Our knowledge, like our ability to read his lyrics, is entirely second hand — something that is just not the case with Rilo Kiley or Wussy, whose sources we know backwards and forwards. So geography, cultural distance and background, is, like change over time, something that accounts for differences (and innovations) in sound.

    So why — if my knowledge is second hand, not based on the next level of understanding (words) — do I have a specific commitment to that album? Because I have no access to the hundreds of other albums I’d have to compare it to, words and all, to distinguish it from its real peers. For me to act otherwise — act like I know, rather than trust others, that this is the best work from West Africa today, would be the worst level of cultural imperialism.

    And while I own nearly 100, there are no African albums that mean what London Calling does to me, and quite few that mean what a typical Otis Redding album does to me. What would it mean for me to claim otherwise?

    On your second issue, I’d say this: my “formula” is descriptive of an existing fact, “this is a favorite song of mine,” rather than a process, “this is how it became a favorite song of mine.” I know that saying “first sound, then words” is a temporal statement. But you are correct to point out that in a hundred specific cases the order could be reversed — I only penetrated the sound because something in the words mattered, or even because someone else pointed out to me that I should try to make sense of the sound because something in the words mattered. This doesn’t effect the formula. Once you have grasped the song, chosen it, as it were, the formula stands as written: you couldn’t like it without liking the sound, you couldn’t individuate it, choose it specifically, without melody and words.

    What I’d like is to know whether the formula I’ve written is useful, not whether it is correct. Obviously it is unprovable and not generalizable. But nothing about criticism is about objectivity: you judge in order to converse with friends, and also in order to try to understand social phenomena, by looking at generalizations over time as they make sense to specific social groups. If my formula assists in the explanation of many specific cases, then I can handle someone pointing out that it leaves many exceptions, so one needs to think about them separately, to think about why they are exceptions. If my formula is simply offputting, there are two possibilities: the person who is put off is sufficiently different from me that there are no grounds for us to converse; or that I am lacking self-knowledge, that in fact I am not describing and explaining my own method accurately or usefully when I am speaking to those who do share real things with me.

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