When we think of songs, we often resort to the typical definitions that mention lyrics and music as their fundamental elements. The melody, the rhythm, the harmony or the words and the verses are part, without a doubt, of any song, but the relationships and substances that run through these special compositions are varied and, perhaps, not so obvious.
The content of the songs
Inside the songs is a very interesting place. There are interactions between its components and characteristics that make them that powerful gadget that we all know.
But, if we put aside, for just a minute, these classic divisions, the “lyrics and music” or “melody, harmony, rhythm and words”, we can go up a level and see the elements that make up a song as two large groups. of elements: sound and meaning.
Every detail that appears in a song is going to have these two qualities, even if at first glance we only think of one of them.
When we hear a chord, for example, we think of sound almost exclusively, but really, that sound combination is going to carry significant potential, too.
Culturally, the sound of a distorted guitar or a synthesizer will communicate certain information to us on its own and will activate some specific personal references in our brains. Probably, then, those sounds are already going to mean something to us.
In the same way, a verse or a stanza, which we would clearly place in the group of elements with immediate meaning, also has a particular sound.
The words resonate in a unique way, the verses build a verbal rhythm and the combination of metrics in the lyrics, rhyme or even the pauses and silences, will provide the verbal set with a specific sound, a specific musicality that, with the choice of other words or lyrical structure would have been different, as writers and poets know perfectly well.
Let’s briefly examine, to begin with, what we mean by sound and meaning.
Sound is a physical phenomenon that consists of the propagation of waves through a medium. It is the reason why we listen to something.
These waves are the consequence of the vibratory movement generated by a body, for example, our speech apparatus, that is, our voice, or a musical instrument, or any other activity or natural accident that produces these vibrations.
The medium that carries them from one point to other points has to be fluid or elastic to some extent in order to propagate these waves. For example, water, or air.
Those changes in air pressure that each vibration causes are mechanical, physical.
It is not a flying magic that carries words or noises in a whimsical way until it finds us. They are vibrations that can be measured and that have a force and a direction or directions, among other characteristics.
If we had the proper vision we could see these vibrations with our own eyes go from one point to another, like in the special effects of some movies. Think of the circular waves caused by a stone thrown into a pond, or the flow of water coming out of a hose, colliding and modifying other waves it may find in its path.
Later, if we are lucky, these waves are perceived by our ears, although only a part of them. First, we pick up those sound waves that the eardrum can transmit. The mechanical signal picked up by the eardrum is then transformed into nerve impulses in the inner ear. Finally, nerve impulses through the auditory nerve are sent and interpreted by the brain.
In what concerns us here, the music produced with instruments or the sound of words being pronounced go all that way before reaching our heads.
So far the birth and journey of what we call a sound.
On the other hand, we have the meaning, the words, which also have their own sound, as poetry knows very well.
It happens that this set of sounds that we call words are not just a sound, but these specific vibrations are associated with one (or several) referents in our brains, which receive those sounds and relate them to their mental contents.
If I say the word tree, each listener will think of a tree, each one his particular tree or trees, his own referents, but in principle, if no distortion occurs in the process, it will always be a tree.
The meaning of words is a convention, an agreement between a group of speakers by which, when pronouncing words, phrases and other verbal devices, we more or less understand each other.
All this explanation may have seemed a bit technical or theoretical to you, but it is enormously important when it comes to understanding how we listen to and perceive our favorite songs, how they are made, because an element is presented in a certain way and not in others.
Good. If we think about sound, melody, music in general, it won’t be difficult for us to agree that it has an evocative and suggestive power, without equal. A few notes or the simplest rhythm you can imagine can have an instant and almost magical effect on any of us.
But to say something concrete, to be fully significant, it may not reach us only with music.
To say “ I love you ” or “ I hate you ”, for example, a piece of music, however masterful it may be, will not be able to communicate it effectively.
And music, by itself, is very subjective, there is no dictionary that says: ” the note f 4 of the great staff means heart “, or ” the middle C of a piano keyboard means world “, or ” the sound of the first string of the guitar is equivalent to the concept air ” etc.
The music itself, if we want this point of clarity, we can say that it doesn’t mean anything in particular.
Instrumental music is the most sophisticated tool that exists to evoke, to move, to create an aroma, a texture or a torrent of sound information that our ears, which our experience later transforms into history, memories or concrete sensations.
On the other hand, words have that communicative power, that potential for concretion and meaning. And that power is at the same time its limitation, since to express our feelings or our desires and so on, words often fall short. There is a plane, a depth that its very significant weight does not allow it to reach.
Following the previous examples. “I love you ”, “I hate you”, yes, very good, fantastic, but how do you love me? Or how much do I hate you?
Poets have endeavored to take words far beyond their limits and, to a large extent, they have succeeded. But there remains a point that they cannot overcome, a human desire for more varied expression and communication that, by its very nature, is beyond their reach.
Music has that more ductile expressive component, more appropriate for conducting a verbal story or an emotional description to regions of the human being that are unreachable with only sophisticated words.
Where only the word does not arrive, however poetic it may be, perhaps it can arrive in the form of a song. Where instrumental music fails to convey a message, an idea or a feeling, songs have the ability to offer perhaps a more complete artifact.