Lyric Specificity and Music’s Emotional Impact

When I think about art in terms of its truth and emotional impact, I picture Lynda Benglis’ Modern Art. Without a particular sense of what emotion it gives me, there’s no reason why these inanimate yet alive, manufactured yet organic objects should elicit emotion, and still, they do. Their surreal quality not only represents, but amplifies life, acting almost as a real life cartoon. You can see them for yourself in MoMA.

Visual art’s impact

I’ve been thinking about Lynda’s metallic blobs since a conversation I had with my sister. She said she is most impacted emotionally from visual art, mainly paintings, above other art forms including music. At first I told her I disagreed, what with the amount of music I digest daily compared to the four or five galleries I see a year, surely I gave my time to that which impacted me most. I couldn’t agree with her at first, but I soon had to.

Modern Art, Lynda Benglis

the two camps

The music I listen to can be divided into two camps: entertainment and emotional food, so to speak. Entertainment comprises about ninety percent of my playlists and radios. They are there to set the mood or accompany me when I’m bored. The other ten percent are the ones I return to because of the impact they have on me. Ten percent feels low but is an honest assessment. This is why paintings and sculpture surpass music in the emotional category. I never go to a museum with the hopes of being entertained, but to feel. 

Movies sit somewhere between these mediums. There is an expectation of entertainment. A movie must keep the audience engaged and also play with the viewer’s emotions. Without one or the other, it falls flat. One might say both qualities are inherent in a solid, well-written story, but so many songs are only entertaining. 

While scouring Spotify, putting my favorite songs in each category, I found that many of the emotionally impactful selections were lyricless. The list is full of Beethoven, Debussy and Lizst, as well as some electronic pieces. The lyrical songs in the emotional category mostly come from artists like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. It doesn’t seem fair that only the premier songwriters of our generation make the cut, but I suppose they are icons for a reason.

subtext in lyrics

When it comes to the orchestral pieces, the emotional gravity is almost a given. There’s just something about string instruments. I’ve always felt we are biologically wired to respond to the vibrations of a cello or violin. But what is it about the lyrical selections that earned them a spot on this list? The musical composition plays a part, but a poetic nature to the lyrics is present across the board. When watching a movie, we aren’t nearly as impacted by physical actions as we are the intentions and circumstances behind them. We subconsciously connect to the wants or shortcomings of a character. What they do on screen helps to amplify those themes and entertain, but the truly moving components of a film are usually subtextual, and intertwined with the progression of the story and the spine of the characters.

The London Symphony Orchestra

It is difficult but possible to capture the same emotion in a song. Difficult as it’s hard to fit a character’s backstory in three minutes, but possible through metaphors and illusion. It was hard for me to believe that still art has a greater impact on me than music. Music is dynamic, unfolding through time as a painting stands still. It can convey emotion through the composition and meaning through words but somehow, oft falls short.

lyric specificity

The problem comes down to lyric specificity. Many modern songs lay out a situation in front of you that the songwriter may have gone through. If you relate to the exact situation through personal experience then you’ll possibly relate to the song on an emotional level. If not, you’ll have to rely on the musical arrangement for emotional satisfaction. Adele is a good example of this. Her lyrics are hyper-specific and lean on the arrangement for emotional support, so they are effective for many people. 

The other side of the coin yields lyrics that are unspecific. They are allusions to feelings rather than exact descriptions of them. We may not always understand what the lyrics mean in terms of our own experiences but they, in combination with the music, remind us of specific emotion. The good news is that not only The Velvet Underground and The Beatles are capable of such an impact. You can find the same poetic style across any genre. It seems to depend on the songwriter. A couple of my favorite modern artists under this umbrella are Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire.

the current state

I won’t go as far as to say that literal lyrics with less emotional depth are bad, but they seem more prevalent today than ever. Thinking back to a time when Elton John and David Bowie were mainstream pop stars makes the current music generation feel a bit shallow. Perhaps that isn’t fair and times are just different. In fact, I would place today’s most famous pop artist, Harry Styles, in the poetic/emotional category. While most of his songs are of the uplifting variety, he has a knack for capturing a feeling with illusion and aural illustration. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with a song existing only for entertainment. It’s also worth mentioning that what one listener might find boring and unemotional, another might find the opposite. There is something for everyone, and the potential for music to grow in either category is always there. 

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