With the advent of digital composing tools, more and more music educators are teaching music composition. But songs are produced by the mysterious alchemy of music and words, and in public school songwriting, the creation of the music may be outstripping the creation of the words. The widespread focus on passing reading tests has undermined the teaching of nuanced creative writing for songwriting, or for anything else for that matter. What makes a song work? The songs of David Byrne work like crazy for me, though some detractors describe his songs as being too smart for their own good. So how smart should a song be?
Not too smart, apparently. Music carries so much of the meaning in an effective song that intelligent lyrics can sometimes get in the way. The right balance must be struck, unless the song is meant to be self-consciously witty and over-freighted with language, as in “patter” songs characterized by simple melodies, quick tempos, clever rhymes, and a beat per syllable. These rapid-fire songs are less about music than they are about language as a kind of musicalized banter. Cole Porter was one of the few songsmiths that could successfully balance great wit with luscious, languorous melodies:
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do,
But I get a kick out of you.
Even here, the language is simple, though the rhymes are complex. Up the number of syllables per word and beats per phrase, and you end up with the “many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse” rattled off by Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General. Tom Lehrer appropriated this G & S tune for his own patter song about the periodic table of the elements. Click on Mr. Lehrer’s image to open a Youtube version.
We also get some patter songs from the band They Might Be Giants. Here is the chorus from Giant songwriters Hy Zaret and Lou Singer’s “Why Does the Sun Shine?”:
The sun is a mass of incandescent gas
A gigantic nuclear furnace
Where hydrogen is built into helium
At a temperature of millions of degrees.
The pleasure here seems to derive from experimenting with how many big, juicy words can be squeezed into the tight box of a choppy, march-like rhythm, like seeing how many 50′s collegiate pranksters could be stuffed into a telephone booth before the advent of cell phones.
In less hectic songs, the essential role of the melody becomes more apparent when the words are looked at on the page unadorned by their musical counterparts. I am surprised by how thin my favorite lyrics often appear to me once lifted from the musical fabric that fills them out and gives them the impression of providing many more verses than actually exist. Take, for example, the great Hank Williams classic, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Try, if you can, to read the words without hearing its seductive melody invading your brain, and see what impression they make:
Your cheatin’ heart,
Will make you weep,
You’ll cry and cry,
And try to sleep,
But sleep won’t come,
The whole night through,
Your cheatin heart, will tell on you…
When tears come down,
Like falling rain,
You’ll toss around,
And call my name,
You’ll walk the floor,
The way I do,
Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you.
What do you come away with if you succeed at keeping the insistent music at bay? Something pretty dumb. So how stupid does a song need to be in order to be any good? As tongue-tied as a broken heart.
- Arnold Aprill