The utility of songs

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Some years ago, I wrote a song that was set in an alternate history: the 1960s, but with a slightly different social structure.

One person I know commented that she thought it would be a better song if it portrayed more progressive attitudes and actions because it would then provide a useful moral rather than being ambiguous toward some social justice goals.

I tend to be more of the “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union” school of thought. Or, at least, a "Sometimes a song only needs to be a song" school of thought.

So, to what degree to you think music needs to serve a purpose in order to be good or valuable?

I feel that music, lyrics, and the stories we tell through them are subjective. If they move you, then it's powerful. If it moves just one other, then it's monumental.

How can any song not serve some purpose or other?

Sometimes a song is just song. Purpose is determined by the writer. I find value in music that is authentic and written with integrity, regardless of its theme or subject matter.

Great conversation...

I very firmly take the perspective that the listener has the final say in whether a song has value.

A lot of people say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I, on the other hand, say that the world is full of infinite beauty and those who deny this are only lessening their own experience of it. For me, to see beauty is to know my eyes are working and to feel love is to know that my heart is working.

A creator of a piece may have a meaning in mind when creating it, but it is far less important than the meaning ascribed to it by the fans. To make sure folks know the _correct_ meaning of a work requires tight control of who accesses it and when. This has been attempted by various religions, and fans taking control of such a work was essentially at the heart of the issue that created the Protestant Reformation. "I don't understand this, and it shouldn't be hard because it should be self-evident from the words."

Look at REM's "Losing My Religion", which fans took literally -- and totally different -- than the lyricist meant as that phrase is slang in some subcultures for getting angry. The fact that the fans took it to mean something totally different than the lyricist originally meant doesn't negatively impact the meaning for anyone involved, it simply changes the meaning.

Problems arise when fans take a piece to mean something directly counter to the creator's original intent. A piece designed to mock something taken literally, etc. This is a problem with all art, and I believe it is best countered with clarity and dialog.

Also: It is possible to write something that others feel has meaning, even while you, yourself don't see the meaning in it. Melville's Moby Dick is an example of this, as folks ascribed meaning to the whale and the struggle that Melville never intended.

Personally, I lean a little toward absurdism while I'm drafting songs, and so much of any meaning is only revealed afterwards when I sit with a piece for longer.

I like what @yam655 said. Each listener determines the value (if any) to a song. If your song connects with a listener then it has value for that listener. It's pretty impossible to have a song that every single person in the world would like.

But that's a bit different than intent. And even if Yam is right, that each listener determines value, you can still have a discussion about if the songwriter achieved their goal. And often that goal is making a "particular" connection with a listener or all listeners. So a songwriter can fail in their goal. Or a songwriter can make the decision to change how they write a song based on how they think it will be perceived.

I'm going to quote what I put on my soundboard last year in response to a question from a fellow songwriter.

"Yes, you're music is art. What you do with it, or how you make it is up to you. If you want an audience you will surely make different decisions than if you make it solely for yourself. That's okay. No-one has a right to tell you how to do your art. However, no-one is obliged to like it and, like it or not, most will tell you one way or the other. Usually the "nots" are louder than the "likes."

Catharsis is different for each of us. The act of creation is, in large part, my catharsis. A welcoming audience is another. I choose to focus on the first. No choice is wrong for you, though.

Artists have been struggling with conforming to what is popular in order to gain an audience for as long as there has been art, I'd bet. You are not alone. But I doubt many of us can help you forge your way. That can be scary, but it can also be liberating. For what it's worth, I'm glad you are creating."

I am enjoying the discussion in this thread. Thank you.

Thanks for the comments.

(I was actually curious about people's feelings on the general idea and only included the incident with the specific song as an example.)

To clarify, I see a difference between the purpose being entertainment versus the purpose being to teach, preach, or propagandize.

I don't see the difference between entertainment and other purposes. There are jingles and specific products for special purposes, but in the general sense, any piece of entertainment for a person can hold greater meaning for someone else. I think many fan cultures demonstrate this.

Just keeps getting better...

Links to examples of what's discussed would be interesting.

just to jump in here - its an interesting discussion, tho I'm also reminded of the quote, I'm paraphrasing slightly- "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" (ie its kind of impossible to translate something from one realm into another and convey all that is there)
That being said, of course, there is both wonderful and not-so-wonderful writing about music. (Just as a side-note- I just finished reading a delightfully fun book I'd recommend to any fan of this band, called 'Dreaming the Beatles'- its not a 'history' per se, but rather kind of impressions, thoughts, tangents, etc that really flesh out alot about all our reactions to music that we love and/or are familiar with)

Back to the topic, 'intention' and 'context' are things that can have a big influence on some of the questions in the original post. But addressing an issue I think the original post may have been referring to obliquely, I do think there is a place for both abstract political and concrete 'this is what i think about x' political songs, too- other folks may not agree, but i think both have their uses, strengths and weaknesses. I know some disagree with that, but hey, there's no 'right' answer for everyone. Except, of course, that you all should be listening to more of my songs, as often as possible! Smile (irony humor/humour alert!) Smile

You tend to go here from a concrete example (a song) to abstract (music, purpose, value). And as Lenin quoted Hegel quoting Augustine: "Truth is concrete."

Most songs have a purpose: to show off how witty/clever/sexy/interesting/empathic the singer is.

My songs don't do that as I don't perform them.

I've also considered 'protest' songs and they're generally not very effective and hard to not make preachy. But then here's a good'un: ...

My songs aren't protest songs then.

And so my songs serve the sole purpose of making me happy to write them ... Smile

Long ago when I used to "study" music and etc., I read that, -- a lyricist does not care how it sounds when taken from them, only that it's used. If you "care", that much, -- you are a performer who writes their own stuff... or similar words. Based upon that, -- I am not a lyricist! Smile

On very rare occassion I had done a, -- "see what you can do with this, what the heck", (lyrics taken for musical guess work Smile ) ... hmmm, usually but not always it was like nails on a chalk board, someone chewing a dry napkin --sqeeking paper on teeth, -- in terms of how it made me feel (***not a commentary on the others talent, not at all!***). I deduced from that, that I "cared", -- allot. So, I guess too that the original questions concerning "goodness/value" purely relates to either the performer and/or lyricist (lesser degree lyricist per the prior qualifier) personally. Then, if they get a "following", -- wonderful; if not, oh well. I have always been fine with "oh well" life long.

We have a wonderful lyricist here on FAWM50590 for which is the only one I've ever taken their lyrics to musicate... because, as per my above qualifier, is a true lyricist. It's otherwise to much pressure unless true "Partners", and not in any casual way.

So, again, for me that supports the, -- it's personal as to "value/goodness". Derivative of "that", -- for me the best performing song writer, while love to be love like any other human being, really don't give a krappe what others think of their stuff. By that very character trait, -- their stuff is authentic and therefore "liked", (never seen it "not liked"). The ones that try to be a "star"... imo, not so much, or "one hit wonders" (can't retire on *debt Smile , usually done at your cost, or tremendous preliminary sunk costs, one-hit wonder stars. My area is peppered with them.

When I was in college I had to take a course that focused a lot on the philosophy of music education... what we teach and why. We spent a lot of time on THE MASTERS... mostly symphony composers of the romantic period. Throw in Bach and Mozart and maybe a couple of 20th century composers for flavor. One train of thought, one that I don't think anyone in my class shared, is that the whole point of music education was to pass on these great works of art for art's sake. They would consider entertainment a function, that truly GREAT music was only there to uplift and edify the soul, and that music with a function was second rate by its nature. And this is a distinction people of the 20th century placed on music of the 19th century. Don't get me wrong, I love a good Mahler symphony. I love Liszt and (although he's morally reprehensible and his stuff could do with a lot less singing) Wagner. But as far as I'm concerned all music has a purpose of some sort. Whether the music is successful at fulfilling its purpose is another matter. The great works were meant to mess with our endocrine systems. Seriously. I once heard that after a Liszt concert there wasn't a dry seat in the house. Women used to have ecstatic fainting spells during Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Some of the music I write... it's purpose is to fulfill my 50/90 quota.

As far as value, that depends on the individual and social expectations. A piece of music might have great value to an individual, but society at large wants nothing to do with it. Conversely, society might exalt one song which leaves some individuals cold. My advice... I wouldn't worry about the value. Write what you want to write, or write what pays the bills, or do a little of both. The rest is academic. This attitude, by the way, is probably why I didn't make it past grad school.

So @katpiercemusic mentioned music and the endocrine system in passing.

Here's an article about that:

Two thing interested me. Punk rock probably ramps up our stress hormones. People who listen to nothing but hardcore punk all day might be creating self-induced stress states.

And playing movements from Holst's "The Planets" had opposite effects on music majors and biology majors. Biology majors had lower levels of stress hormones, I guess the music was soothing to them. Music majors had increased levels, not because they were stressed but because they were analyzing the piece as musicians, not as casual listeners. They were much more involved in the music than the biology majors.

Cool stuff.

I used to think the songs I wrote were without meaning or purpose. After listening back some years later I realized I had perfectly summed up the struggles and joys of my life, and observations of the world from my little vantage point in history. It was a really cool time capsule I got to open, and then I'd compare it with newer songs I'd written. I could mark progress I had made in my journey. This of course is just a personal observation on my own music, but I think most music is created to express one's truth, and even if you're not trying to make some grand statement, that statement comes out of you anyway by the words you choose, the flow, the melody, and tone of your voice or instrument. Writing music is both a thunderous and gentle type of self therapy, and when others connect with the message or see themselves in the story, then that music is therapy for them as well. All good things.

Interesting conversation! "Studies in humans have shown that caffeine increases cortisol and epinephrine at rest, and that levels of cortisol after caffeine consumption are similar to those experienced during an acute stress. Drinking coffee, in other words, re-creates stress conditions for the body."

Maybe there's something in a lot of humans that DESIRES the stress feeling?

The conclusion of the musical hormone article was "these findings indicate that there is no simple relationship between music and stress hormones। It is not only a matter of the type of music played, but also the cognitive and other mental activities that the individual brings to the situation."

Lyrics are words, so talking about lyrics is not like dancing about architecture.

I have an idea. I try to express it using words. You experience those words. You interpret them - and that interpretation may or may not line up to my idea.
If I am trying to express "I have a high fever, and I need you to take me to the hospital" and you interpret it as "Iveg thinks he's physically attractive" there's been a breakdown of the communication process.

If I want a certain outcome, I will try to express it clearly. "Buy my soup", "Don't litter". It may or may not sound preachy. If I expect resistance, maybe I'll obscure the meaning slightly. Maybe I'll try to be more indirect. Appeal to your emotions.

If I have an ambiguous message, I would expect a wide range of possible interpretations. I'm thinking of Weezer lyrics, where Rivers Cuomo cuts and pastes together phrases from his journal, a database, based on the syllables and stresses. He does not know "the story" beforehand. He wants to reveal a new story that surprises him.