Words and Music

Alan Meerow

“The effective combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo with lyric and its structure can create a force to be reckoned with. It can change lives. It can topple empires.”  – Paul Pattison, author of “Writing Better Lyrics,” and professor, Berklee College of Music.

You love music.  I doubt that you would even be reading this were it not for that simple fact.  Perhaps you play one or several instruments, or sing.  Or you may be merely an avid listener.  Of the hours that you spend weekly playing or listening to music, how much of it is unaccompanied by words?  If you enjoy singing, the answer is likely obvious.  If you play an instrument, the answer, while less obvious, may lean towards music alone, especially if you believe that your vocal talents are inferior.  But what about your choices of music if you, like me, are mostly, if not completely, a music listener?  Do you enjoy classical music or jazz, both primarily, though not exclusively, without a vocal component?  Or do you lean most heavily to songs with lyrics?

I both love and respect words.  Words have power, and can be emotionally charged enough to elicit strong reactions.  When I was young, poetry was extremely important to me, both as a reader and a writer.  I wrote poetry compulsively from about the age of 16 until sometime around 30, when the poetic muse, which admittedly had been visiting less and less frequently as I aged, finally disappeared from my life.  This loss never really upset me; it always seemed a natural progression towards a different kind of life, one in which writing still functioned importantly but in very different ways than poetry did.  But throughout my life I never stopped listening to music.  As much as Sibelius’ Violin Concert in D Minor and certain jazz players such as Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner or Bobby Hutcherson can make my soul soar, when I pinpoint specific emotionally charged moments of my life in a musical context, the soundtrack is invariably in the form of words and music.

The preceding is a preamble to the central question of this essay: the relationship of poetry and lyrics.  This relationship has preoccupied both poets and lyricists more than you might imagine, and sometimes with an inherent value judgement (from either camp).

The word “lyric” is from the Greek, and Greek lyric poetry was an extremely important component of the arts in ancient Greek culture, most prominently from the 7th through the 5th century BC, the Grecian golden age, but persisted into the early days of the Roman Empire.  It was one of Aristotle’s three classes of poetry: lyrical, epic and dramatic. Often, but not always, Greek lyric was sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.  Lyric poetry is characterized by a strong but diverse palette of meters (the rhythmic structure of the poem), of which the most familiar is known as Iambic – two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable followed by the long or stressed syllable).  The principles and structure of lyric poetry continued to inform the work of poets through Medieval times and into the Renaissance.  Offshoots included the sonnet, which originated in Italy but spread throughout Europe, of which perhaps the best known are those of Shakespeare.

Robert Creeley. Credit-ChrisFelver.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that poets began to feel stifled by the trappings of lyrical poetry and its structure of rhyme, and iambic pentameter.  The Modernist movement in poetry, led by T. S. Elliott, Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams would have strong influence over several generations of modern English language poets who abandoned rhyme and classical meter altogether. Lyric poetry didn’t disappear, but morphed into the confessional poems of writers like Sylvia Plath and others.

One of my favorite American poets, the late Robert Creeley, who was my greatest influence when I was a creator of poems, constructed a minimalist poetry that sometimes opened unexpected vistas.  His shortest poems were easily memorized, and they could roll around in your head branching with the cadence of your own associations.  His poems created their own rhythm, sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholy.  Here is one from his period of the 1950’s and 60’s.


If you never do anything for anyone else
you are spared the tragedy of human relation-

ships. If quietly and like another time
there is the passage of an unexpected thing:

to look at it is more
than it was. God knows

nothing is competent nothing is
all there is. The unsure

egoist is not
good for himself.

The poet Matthew Zapruder suggests that “…there are important and fascinating differences between lyrics and poems, just not the ones that are usually focused on. Words in a poem take place against the context of silence …, whereas, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics[i].”

Song lyrics, and often those of the most popular songs, can be relatively mundane, while others can rise to the heights of lyrical inventiveness. Yes, even poetry.

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I’m returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

Recognize the above? Those lines hail from Joni Mitchell, an artist whose lyrics are often referred to in the context of poetry, and the verses are from 1976’s Hejira. Poetry?  No question.  In this song, the poem dances with Jaco Pastorius’ expressive bass, while once and only once a clarinet briefly weaves in and out of Mitchell’s voice and guitar and his playing.  Brilliant? Yes.  Hum-able? No.

One of most interesting musicians I’ve encountered recently is the 35 year old, Brooklyn-based Gabriel Kahane, a composer and pianist whose broad career extends from classical, including commissioned pieces, to musical theater, to his own arresting songs.  Here is “Bradbury (305 Broadway)” from his recent recording The Ambassador, a song cycle inspired by places in Los Angeles; lyrics first.  If you can, read them out loud.

Tribal neon
On the rooftop
Through the fog

Search lights, white dove
Am I dying
Am I done?

Have you known
Anyone designed to break down?
I was shown
Pictures that I thought
Were family.

Hong Kong slaveship
All the symbols
On the mast

Gleaming squalor, decay grown taller
Through the ceiling
Through the glass

Have you known
Anyone designed to break down?
Oh, oh have you really known
Anyone at all?

Like me, the dark city
Thinks its recall
Is its own

But have not its thoughts
Been suggested
in the bone?

I’ve seen things
You people would not believe, like
Great glittering c-beams
Fires feeding on an airplane –

All these thoughts
Moments I’ve collected
All, all will be lost
Lost like tears in rain.

Poetry?  At first, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t explain why.  I’m still not really certain.  Now, listen to this marvelous live recording of the song, and follow along with the lyrics.

For me, it is a perfect marriage of music and lyric.  I spent two weeks unable to get the melody of this song out of my head.  But the lyrics –  the only line that I could remember was “Have you known,” probably because it was repeated twice.  Of course, I can’t recall a single line of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira! Now think of a favorite song the lyrics of which are etched in your memory.  Find an imprint of those lyrics.  How do they fare as art without their aural accompaniment?  “You may be surprised.”

Matthew Zapruder again: “To say that this means song lyrics are less literary than poems, or require less skill or intelligence or training or work to create, is patently absurd (and, in the case of rap music, patronizing). But that does not mean that song lyrics are poems. They might sometimes accidentally function like poems when taken out of a musical context, but abstracting lyrics from musical information is misleading and beside the point. It seems to me far more productive to ask how lyrics in songs relate to musical information, and how poems relate to the silences (cultural and actual) that surround them, and to recognize that lyrics and poetry, while different genres with different forces and imperatives, have both more and less in common than we might think, and are endeavors of equal value.”


Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.