Last week, I introduced this trilogy of posts about music and the art therein, and today I’d like to continue that trilogy. It’s going to be a short post, because studying for finals is important and so forth.
Last week, my post talked about the art found in music, and I mentioned how all genres of music are art. Well, today I’d like to talk about a few ways in which those genres can create poor art and strong art. Again, I’m going to avoid bashing or praising certain genres (although I’m certain to be praising some for some things, and others for other things), since some portions of music taste are, in fact, relative.
The Two Parts of Music
While music can be incredibly complex (to the point where I would be completely lost because I’m not a musician myself and more of a mixer/producer), it can be boiled down to two basic part: lyrics and instrumentals. Obviously, classical and neo-classical music tends to lack the former part [with some exceptions of course], so we’ll turn our attention to music that contains both.
Music must be creative. This is why you might be able to consider songs with different lyrics and the same instrumental parts as art (such as parodies… at least the serious ones that mean something rather than simply creating nonsense… anyway). Music has to create something new and insightful in at least one of the two parts that make it up.
That’s harder than you think. Most instruments can only hit a certain number and combination of notes, and those notes can only be arranged in so many unique ways that also sound pleasing to human ears. We’re surprisingly picky (which is why so many genres exist… for instance, my dad can’t stand Country/Bluegrass [nothing against those genres, he just doesn’t like the twang/drawl in music] and I can’t stand most screamo/heavy metal).
What makes the instrumental part of music creative and unique and… artistic? While I’m not the genius in this area of the art of music, I’d like to offer what I’ve realized when conversing with all of my musically inclined friends: creative instrumental music involves either taking a risk or invoking emotion, often both. There are certain parts of music (notes, progressions, riffs, etc.) that aren’t usually used, because they can be risky. I can’t tell you what exactly those are, because I’m not the expert in this area, but I can tell you they exist. When an artist takes that risk and it works, they create something new and exciting and worthwhile. Art.
Sometimes, however, that risk isn’t worth it. It won’t fit the song. Instead, the music has to evoke emotion. Whether that means making the listener tap their foot to the beat or stop and smile or close their eyes or exhale loudly. Maybe it means flailing arms or graceful steps. It’s creation of emotion.
Lyrics: Flash Fiction
If I told you to write a story in 200-500 words, you’d tell me I was crazy. Or you’d set about writing what fiction writers call “flash fiction”. This sort of fiction is always under 500 words (sometimes under 100 words if you’re that type of person) and tends to rely completely on the emotion of complex words and succinct descriptions. Lots of action and meaning packed into every word.
As it turns out, the average wordcount of a song is 200-400 words. Or less.
That’s not very many words. So what does that mean for the songwriter? Packing as much emotion and meaning into as few words as possible. It means succinct and powerful word choices. You don’t have a novel to make people think about your theme. Four hundred words. Four. Hundred. Words.
That, I think, is where the power of music lies. It takes three minutes for a song to tell a story, to create emotion, to invoke thought. It takes a novel hours.
Now. Not every song has to tell a literal story. For instance, “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy doesn’t tell very much of a story. Instead, it creates the concepts that allow for a story to weave its way through the listener’s head as they come up with one in their imagination. “Gun Song” by the Lumineers, on the other hand, tells a very short and concise and powerful story steeped in allegory. Both are excellent songs, and both are very different genres.
Now, “Gun Song” tells a very specific story and is an allegory for very specific things. But not all songs need tell a story that specifically. Instead, they can create a vague and general story that people can then apply to their own selves. Good examples include “Screen” by Twenty One Pilots, “I will Wait” by Mumford and Sons, and “This is Gospel” by Panic! At the Disco.
Now, from those two paragraphs, you probably picked up on my general taste in music: alternative; rock; folk. While those are my taste, I also enjoy absorbing other mediums of music and you can apply these same ideas to other genres.
Where do many songs go wrong when it comes to lyrics? They tell the same story over and over and over. Listen to the radio sometime. Really LISTEN. Ponder the story the lyrics are telling. Not just how catchy the tune is or how “clever” the rhyme scheme is. What is the song saying?
You’ll find a lot of popular songs nowadays are telling the same story over and over.
Does that make them bad?
Not necessarily. They have every right to tell that story, because it’s still a story. One might argue that they’re still art, even when they’re unoriginal.
Good art, however, quality music, needs more. It needs to tell a story that makes you stop and appreciate it, wonder at it, ponder over it. Not all of those at once, necessarily, but at least once. That’s when music becomes powerful. How so? I’ll share that in two weeks, because I’ve already spent too long on this and not enough time studying.