Words and Music - An Introduction

The popular song seems to me to perform some of the same functions as poetry; particularly, to paint a picture in as few words as possible. Of course, a great many popular songs say as close to little or nothing as makes no difference, and probably a majority of them deal with expressing one particular thought or emotion without much in the way of embellishment. Think of 'I Wanna Hold your Hand', for example. The entire concept of the song is embodied in the title, and while we might see that simple expression as a metaphor for something less innocent, there is not much in the way of development beyond that simple longing. It is what it is, as I am altogether too fond of saying.

And, of course, in a great many of those songs, there is an added layer of meaning or at the least emphasis in the music - the jauntiness or otherwise of the melody; the stridency or otherwise of the beat; the sudden key changes or the relentless repetition of three major chords - which adds its own meaning. We all seem to understand this at some level, which is why so many of those simple, disposable songs are popular favourites, and why so many of them have deep personal meaning for so many people. It's not what they say, but the way they say it, or the circumstances in which they were first heard, or the person who first introduced it to you - all of this makes music what it is, and makes it more lasting than one might expect, and more popular than the written word.

But there is another subset of popular songs - the ones which try to tell a more complex story. These ones approach the realm of poetry, and whether they touch a popular chord or are footnotes in musical history, they seem complete in themselves. There's a bigger picture, but these verses reach the essence of it. They are more than what they are, by virtue of having been pared down to their essentials. My template for this type of song is 'Eleanor Rigby': a great deal is said in very few words, and everyone has some kind of mental picture of all the events in the song. We fill in the unspoken details; how Eleanor came to be here, what kind of childhood she had, even the colour of her hair.

And we all have a slightly different version. My Eleanor is old and grey-haired, widowed in the war and, having watched her parents slowly decline, is powerless to prevent the same fate. Yours, of course, may be blonde and vivacious - both views are valid, although the second is a little more difficult to square with the words of the song.

Which brings me to the rationale, if there is one, for this set of stories. These are my visions of a small set of songs which have touched me in some way over the years. They seek to celebrate the songwriter's craft by revealing how much has been stripped away to leave the poetry beneath, and they are not intended to embellish or explain what is going on. I've tried to pick songs which leave much unsaid, and I'm not aiming in any way to retell the story or even particularly to figure out what happened next; just to explore the imagination which has been stirred by some of the finest lyric writing that a much-maligned genre has to offer.

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