Listen to the words, man!

  “You got to hear this one song. It will change your life.”

That song by The Shins didn’t change my life upon my first listen, but it did remind me of a terrible thing that I do often when listening to tunes: ignoring the lyrics. My loss. That’s the problem with music. All that melody and beat. Who has time to dissect all that chatter? Save that for the insert, right?


Of course I deserve a slap on the wrist (or face if it bothers you that much) for not knowing the words or meaning to your favorite song, but go easy on me. I was nearly reprimanded once by a drunk audience after a live performance for not knowing all of Wobble Baby Wobble. I shouldn’t get off too easy, though. Right now there are sickly songwriters out there about to go insane trying to string two words together just for your listening pleasure. Plus, I am sadly out-spitted by my fellow musicians that can rap Snoop or Sugar Hill Gang on a whim, whereas I would be lost without that karaoke screen and liquid courage.


I do have an excuse, though, and it goes much deeper than just ignoring lyrics. For example, in opera a ’la a cappella where you’re left with no choice but to hear only the singer’s words, one can still get lost in melody alone. You don’t even need to know the language. Ellis “Red” Redding didn’t know what those Italian women were singing in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, and he didn’t want to. He just wanted to prolong that feeling of being set free by the sound of their soaring voices.


It’s the constant battle of music and words. On that initial spin, one wins (or loses) you over the other, and finding that balance between melody and lyrics is the songwriter’s perilous fight.


Wait just a damned minute, you say. It depends on what type of music you’re listening to.


True that. An instrumental is an instrumental is an instrumental. No lyrical deciphering necessary for pieces like Breezin’ or YYZ, unless you do hear subliminal messages in the background, which is another unsettling topic I’ll skirt here. While lyric attentiveness depends on the song, it also depends on the listener.


Listening to music can be like consuming food. I cannot tell you how to taste a choice piece no more than you can tell me. We may agree on the sweetness of sugar and sourness of lemons, but our chewing methods differ (pray you don’t have mine). So too does our approach to listening to music.


If you do hear music like I do, you first listen to the tonal content (if any), the percussiveness (if any), and then the chord changes (please if any). Basically, you listen to all the elements that make up the music. It doesn’t require a degree in music theory or years of listening academically. It may not even be possible or ideal to teach someone to listen this way. It’s more like making one aware to listen in this fashion.

It’s a simple process. Hear the music, the high and low. Hear the way it changes. Hear the melody. Hear how it fits against the changes. If you like it all, hear it again. Notice there is no hint of giving heed to lyrics yet. I’ve listened to music this way since the days I’ve first heard Freddy Fender as a child.

If you listen this way, you may have what is a called a “good ear.” You can pick up a tune fairly quick, imprint it in your mind and hum it back. This is regardless of whether or not you sing or play an instrument; although, this way of listening has saved me a number times on last minute song requests as a musician.


By no means should you feel superior to someone who does not listen to music this way. As keen and adept as your ear is, you are only listening to half of the story if you disregard the lyrics. You are not seeing all of Monet’s colors. Also, this type of listening is not applicable to all types of music; didgeridoo players need not feel threatened here.


I envy those, lyric-centered or not, that can hear a song in a pass or two and take lyrical meaning. My wife is still in awe whenever I stand ignorant to song lyrics I’ve heard a million times on the radio and have no clue about. It can also be hazardous to young ears when parents don’t pay attention to the occasional explicit word in that otherwise harmless pop song, as I’ve found out the hard way. First-graders will know all of George Carlin’s list of words you can’t say on television before you know it.


When you do finally pay attention to words of familiar songs, the payoff can sometimes be so profound that you have to stop whatever you’re doing and relish the mind-blowing or heart-wrenching experience. Things happen like The Flaming Lips having you realize that the sun isn’t really going down, Xavier and Ophelia inviting you out for fun at Chateau Marmont, or that The La’s were singing about heroin all this time, to list a few.


If you can listen and dig the words right off the bat, you’re on a better plane of existence.

 Keep listening. I’ll try to do the same.

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