Fight Club – Lyrics vs. Melody

Pick up any songwriting book, or participate in any class and it is likely the majority of questions asked and instruction offered will revolve around lyrics. Most online forums are deluged daily with “Critique My New Lyrics!” posts. It would indeed seem that, as the old Nashville saying goes, “lyric is king”….but is it really? I’ll bet Melody would have a few things to say about that. I say, let ‘em fight.

In The Red Corner
Lyrics are the story, idea, or the central theme of a song. They are what the song is about, for cryin’ out loud. The title and chorus-lyric are the hub that the entire song revolves around. When you open up an album and look at the liner notes, what do you see - lyrics or melodies?

If one believes lyrics aren’t that important, why even both with them? Why not just sing “la, la, la” or hum the melody to every song? I’ll tell you why: because without lyrics a vocal melody gets boring. A vocal melody is not like an instrumental melody. A vocalist doesn’t have near the tonal range as a piano or guitar, and lacks the ability to incorporate huge interval jumps or other instrumental techniques. A vocal melody needs lyrics to develop it and sustain interest.

One must also acknowledge the power of actually having something to say. Can you imagine the music of the ‘60’s without lyrics? Just as a pen, a microphone is mightier than the sword. Why waste that power with “la, la, la’s”?

In the Blue Corner
Sorry Charlie, but it’s the melody that people sing….even when they can’t remember the lyrics. What could be more important than that? It’s a fact that people can retain words when set to music much better than words alone, or even in poem form. It follows that if you want people to remember your lyrics you better have a darn good melody leading the charge.

So if the melody of a song is where all the memory power lives, why so much attention on lyrics? Easy - it’s because lyrics are easy to quantify. As songwriters we can all sit around and scrutinize them seven ways ‘til Sunday. We can analyze their meaning, and discuss how clever or droll they are. Instructors can offer very specific tips on how to manipulate and improve them. In short, we can all geek out about them.

Melodies are more mercurial. They’re slippery, tough to teach, and difficult to talk about in absolute terms. People get scared. No component of songwriting is as important or feared as the melody.

We Have a Split Decision
A melody gives greater depth of feeling to a lyric and enhances a listener’s ability to remember the words. A well-written lyric, on the other hand, gives specific meaning to, and creates a sense of musical development for a melody. If I were forced to choose, I would have to say a song's melody is more important, but the truth is that a great set of lyrics paired with a perfectly complimentary melody is a total greater than the sum of its parts.

* Photo by Hoggheff aka Hank Ashby aka Mr. Freshtags' photostream


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