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Why Your Musicians Don’t Know Your Lyrics… And Why It May Not Matter

A big part of my preparation and education, if you want to call it that, for being songwriter was (and is) playing hundreds and thousands of songs on gigs, in recording sessions, in Broadway shows. A lot of covers, a lot of originals. I was a bass player – a sideman – and I still am, among other things.

Songs always fascinated me, so I usually paid attention to the lyrics of the songs I played. At the same time I noticed that, though some musicians listened closely to lyrics, most didn’t. Yet many of them were able to play the songs just as ‘sensitively’, with as much awareness of the song’s nuances, as I did. Often more so.

I’ve been at many rehearsals where the songwriter/bandleader painstakingly explained their lyric… why, for example, the music had to get very quiet in a certain section to follow the lyric… Sometimes this was helpful. Often I felt it was unnecessary, for reasons I’ll go into below.

When I started my own band about 6 years ago, I was lucky enough to get some of New York’s finest musicians, people I had played many sessions and gigs with, to perform and record my songs with me on a regular basis. Unlike the aforementioned bandleaders, I rarely brought up the particulars of a lyric to my band. And I never felt the music suffered for it.

After having the band for a while I started to realize that my musicians truly had no idea what most of my lyrics were, other than the song title at the top of the chord chart. Even though of course I wouldn’t’ve minded hearing something from them along the lines of, “Heavy lyric, MAN!”, I not only didn’t mind their inattention to the words of my songs; overall I considered it a plus.

Why? Well, I should reiterate that these musicians have played for some of the greatest songwriters of our time… without a doubt they know how to interpret a song! I always felt that they were taking in the essence of the songs at a deep level, a level where most of the time it wasn’t necessary to ‘know’ the lyric.

And – here’s where I saw the benefit – most of the time I actually prefer to not have my songs interpreted literally. To not have the tom toms roll when I’m singing about thunder, to not have the guitar ‘cry’ when I sing about heartache, to not have the organ play circus music if I sing about a carnival, etc… Hey, that’s fine with me!

To me that kind of interpretation tends to be more superficial… I think listeners take in songs in a more holistic way… and that’s how these musicians heard and played mine. Not in a literal way, but in a deeper, more intuitive way. And I believe songs aren’t literal… ideally, as important as lyrics are, there’s much more to a song than can be put into words… or lyrics.

So the fact that my band members might fail miserably at a quiz about my lyrics doesn’t bother me a bit. That said, it would amuse me greatly to give them such a quiz.

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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8 responses to “Why Your Musicians Don’t Know Your Lyrics… And Why It May Not Matter”

  • Angela

    You give me such great alternative ways to think about things Tony. Love your blog!!

  • Mark Permann

    I very much agree with your suspicion that most listeners internalize songs intuitively rather than literally.

    Quite often a song will pop into my head and I don’t know why… And almost every time, if I look at the lyrics, they are relevant to something I’m feeling – in fact, they work to reveal what I’m feeling to me.

    And I have to look up those lyrics because I almost never know them, certainly never read them before, and often the snippet I do recall isn’t the most revealing part of the song.

  • All great points, Tony. To that I would add: Sometimes there can be a noticeable disconnect between the musical background and the lyric, yet somehow the whole works. The Smiths did that a lot, pitting lyrics wallowing in misery and self-pity against bright happy pop instrumentals.
    It’s arguable that the Suzanne Vega song “Luka” has a similar dissonance between the quiet, dark lyric and the triumphal music. I worked on that record, and while I remember distinctly how we got to that arrangement, I do not recall that anyone ever questioned why we were doing it that way, in apparent opposition to the lyric.

  • I don’t want the kind of literal and obvious instrumental cues you mention but as a horn player who also writes and sings, I find that I play a melody better when I know the words. It is a question of phrasing. I don’t think it matters as much for a bass player or drummer but I notice that some of the best players do pay attention to lyrics.

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