If you write a song and the audience interpret it differently, is it good or bad?

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And I'm not talking about some bluntly didactic bit of plain English, I mean a song that you've quite carefully swaddled in songwriting conventions, with winks, nods, metaphors and lines left at 1.5 spacing so the listener can read between them.

You had something important to say. You said it a way you thought would make it worthy of being in the genre of song. Your audience heard something completely different, but enjoyed or appreciated it nonetheless.

Was your attempt, to this end, a success or a failure? Try to answer without using the words 'both' or 'neither'.

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Is a great question that I can't answer if I can't say it was both and neither a success and or a failure. A hard question to answer as well with any objectivity and without getting into one's own tastes, but I'll try to meander my way through my thoughts on it.

First, I think a song that makes anyone feel anything is a success, whether or not that feeling was the authors intention or not (as frustrating as that may be especially in the scenario you described)

Hmmm, I guess that's about it without getting into all the minutiae about it.

Isn’t it nice that we all have different backgrounds and experiences, all of which shape how we interpret life around us. Try teaching students, of different ages, and discuss. Their interpretation of the topic is always relevant to them. Like the blind man and the elephant sometimes. If you are lucky, the teacher has made a difference.

i only consider a song a success if what i intended comes across clearly and has some relevance to the listener. i have failed if a song is misinterpreted, a song has many aspects, many ports of entry, and lyrics are only part of it. i am happy if a person finds pleasure in the melody, or the sound...i may have failed as a writer but succeeded as a singer or composer. if somebody enjoys listening, i feel i have created something of value. and i have to admit that as a listener, all i ask of the lyrics is that they give shape and expression to the musical phrase.

@Stephen Wordsmith based on your description I regretfully must say...you failed! Somehow you fell short of saying precisely what you wanted to say. Take for example my song, Wear The F#cking Mask You F#cking Baby. I have had basically two types of reactions, "Hell Yeah" and "How dare you try to take away my freedumb". But no one has misunderstood my message! Biggrin

(BTW, having read and enjoyed lots of your lyrics, I do NOT believe you failed!)

Well, to this day the song I am most proud of is my breezy summer track “Wilmas & Bettys”. The song is a surf song, about surfing, about surfing chicks, and full of authentic surf lingo. It’s my “Thriller” so to speak.

But, my audience believes the song is about the Flintstones. Likely because of the “Yabba Dabba” line. While I did include a small shout out to the Flintstones with that line (obviously) the song is in no way about the Flintstones.

So, in my eyes, although I am most proud of that song out of my catalogue so far, I do believe that I failed to convey a breezy surf song about surfing girls. Sad

Interesting question. I wonder if Sting thought "Every Breath You Take" was a failure? It's a story about a stalker but is widely interpreted as a love song.
As a songwriter all you can do is lay it out there and let the listener decide what you mean. If they miss your point but find another, I don't see that as a bad thing.

A good thing. It’s a dialogue, the listener isn’t a passive recipient but takes active part in interpreting meaning.

Its interesting to read through the posts.
As a less than novice song-writer (I mainly do instrumental stuff), whenever I actually write lyrics, they are usually silly stuff that make no sense at all. But I do try to add in something personal, even if a song is about eating chicken wings at a rodeo or something silly like that. And because I'm personally someone who usually doesn't pick up on what other peoples' lyrics really mean, I never care if nobody picks up on anything I'm trying to get across. If they just think I'm a silly dum-dum, that's fine! As long as they had a little fun listening.
I agree with those who say its up to the listener to feel and think what they want. But I also understand the potential disappointment if people just don't "get it" when you're really trying to say something. Sometimes, I've spoken about mental health in songs, but because they have a poppy and upbeat feel to the music, and sung by a robot, its kinda lost. Sometimes I feel like I'm reaching out, or crying out (not looking for any help in return or anything, just as a song-writer or someone using art to finally get things off their chest)...and it doesn't land. That doesn't always feel good.
But as long as what we write makes someone feel SOMETHING...I think that's a good thing.
Then again, I know nothing lol...just what I think.

Metaphors and imagry allow the listener to become a part of the story. It brings back their experiences and events and that's a good song. It will be how the listener interprets emotionally the song. Art does that all the time, the artist paints a scene that inspired him/her and it could remind the viewer of a place they visited and all the feelings and events there. It is a good thing when the listener feels drawn emotionally to the song.

I would rather have listeners tell me what the song means to them rather than railroad them in to one specific way of thinking.
So yeah, multiple interpretations are always more than welcome.

Most of the songs I write are intended to tell a story. As long as the points of the story come through, an unexpected reaction or interpretation from the audience doesn't mean the song has failed. If the story doesn't actually make sense or isn't received as the same story I tried to tell, however, then I've failed at communicating.

If someone likes one of my songs, for whatever reason, that's good enough for me.

It's all fun and games until someone interprets (or misinterprets) your erstwhile efforts to express yourself (in words, music, or otherwise) as subversive or heretic.

Maybe good. Maybe bad. Certainly inevitable (especially if you've moved outside the realm of didactic plain English). One of the all-time great FAWMers--a tremendous guitar player and lyricist who doesn't see fit to slum it here with us anymore--used to write some devastatingly sad lyrics. Most of these sad songs had a sort of comic veneer, which made them all the more devastatingly tragic, in my view. This FAWMer was frequently frustrated because it seemed that almost no one here could see past the humor and get to the tragic core of the song. Said FAWMer would get lots of comments about how funny the songs were, when it seemed to me that the songs might have been some of the saddest ever written. To be honest, I don't think people look at lyrics very carefully around here. Winks, nods, and metaphors? You might as well be writing in a dead language

Well it must depend, right? It depends on your goals as a songwriter. But in your example, it sounds like you are saying there was a clear intention to express something to listeners, and it didn't come through. So if you want a definitive answer, that sounds like a clear failure. Also, absolutely, in cases where you put in obscure references hoping to be understood, but your audience does not understand them, that is a failing (know your audience - for example, obscure literary references are not going to be understood by most listeners, unless your listeners are all lit professors).

However, many songwriters do not write this way. They might put in obscure references and delight in the fact that only a select few will notice and understand them. And they might write songs based on something personal to them, but not only do they not care if people don't perceive the exact meaning, but they actually *strive* for it to be ambiguous, open to interpretation, and applicable to many different experiences. This is why "not being understood" is not *always* bad. But if your goal is to be clearly understood and you aren't, then of course you have failed at your goal.

Edit: Oh, and I would also say that if the writer falls into neither of these categories -- you write a song hoping to impact listeners or maybe build a career, rather than either trying to express some specific truth OR hoping to be ambiguous -- then if people like the song and gain something from it, it's a success. It doesn't matter how they interpret it. It all depends on the writer's goals.

When you put a song out into the world, I believe you give up control of the meaning. The listener figures out what, if anything, it means to them. The writer is usually not around to answer questions (unless we’re talking about here).

not both. not neither.
you can't judge all songs the same. does the meaning of "little wing" appear the same to every listener? likely not. does "a boy named sue" mean roughly the same thing to every listener? far more likely.
which is to say-- the more poetic your word choice, the more abstract your imagery, then interpretation will vary greatly from listener to listener. but the more clearly you are telling a story, with concrete images, the more likely you are to experience a uniformity of interpretation from listener to listener.
i wrote imagistically once upon a time, with much poetry and many abstract images. now i'm more of a story teller. now, i find i need to make things less cut and dried, leave some mystery in, so the listener/ reader can find something in there to make relate to them. by including a way for the listener to put himself into the song, i sacrifice some clarity, but i allow the listener to to be IN the song, instead of an outside observer.
it's a fine line, but somebody has to walk it.

I don't think it's either; it just is. I think a song is like a screwdriver, initially made for a specific need/application and the the end users may use its intended purpose or find other ways/applications for it depending upon their needs.

It drives screws, opens paint cans, is a pry bar, hole poker, bug killer, detail paint scraper, groove gouger, throwing "knife", drum stick, glass breaker, ground stake, a weight, etc...

I think any interpretation is a lens into the life experiences of the interpreter and their interpretation speaks to those experiences.


So first: it's inevitable. The creator does not own or control the interpretation. I'd claim that's foundational to the modern conception of art.

Is that bad? I'm reminded of Pere Ubu's song "Final Solution", an angst-ridden suicide-evoking song which apparently became a neo-Nazi anthem. This led to questions about the right of an artist to censor their own work when it took on meanings they didn't want to endorse. Not a trivial question by any means.

So, let's say that it's at least problematic. But the problem is deeply connected with the reasons to create in the first place.

We are creating art here. And our particular art enters the ears and mind of the listener, and goes where it will, based on their experiences. So we can state our intent, but the outcome may be entirely different. For me that is ok.

@JamKar that's what I was going to say but you put it much better.

There are many stories of great songs that are exactly like that. I imagine art of any kind is like that..any kind of creation for that matter, probably. Wise JamKar probably said it much better as I notice it above...

if a person writes a song, and intends it to be understood in a specific way, maybe it's a letdown when the listener makes up some other meaning.

how much of the 'meaning of the song' is really in the way it is sung, and the backing music?

can't imagining anyone getting exactly what I meant, in all ways. If they get some feeling and relate in some way, it's worked the way it should.

for me, everything is in the way it is sung.....the meaning is already in the music. the lyric tells the singer how to express the music. some of my best lines are not good lines in a literary way. they are good because of the musical phrases they enrich.

Would it be worth performing if the artist knew how everyone is supposed to feel/react? Can a singer really know what he really means by a song? I guess if yes, then where is the fun?

I've always looked at my music & the recordings of my music as "moments captured in time". But here's the thing, a crowd of 100 people can all witness the same event, many might describe it in similar terms after the fact, but you will find that there are many differences in their descriptions because of their different vantage points, their own past experiences & their own interpretations/perceptions of the event. The same is true for music (or any other artform, for that matter…). You can write/record a song & have 100 people listen to it. I bet you they will all get something different from it.

I mean, I was somewhat shocked during FAWM this year when I got comments on my song "Before The Rain" (which I released as the lead single from my latest album - sorry shameless self promotion). Many people heard the song as being about the death of a loved one. In my mind, that's not what the song is about. It's partly about my personal struggle with depression during my early 20's. But re-reading the lyrics afterward, I could see how someone could interpret them as being about death. It might have shocked me (because the whole album is very personal in its subject), but I'm not surprised by these different interpretations. In fact, I'm glad. I want my listeners to have a personal reaction to my music. When they have a personal reaction, they are more likely to feel a personal connection - which means the music has a greater meaning to them then just some one-hit-wonder that nobody remembers after it's fallen off the charts. I want my listeners to "experiænce" my music - i.e. to make that greater connection & have it move something deep within themselves. Like it moves something deep within me when I perform it. But I certainly don't expect them to be moved in the same way & for the same reasons that I am moved. In my mind, it's rather arrogant to think that I can exactly manipulate someone else's reactions to my creative work. No thanks. So yeah, Before The Rain is about Death, or Depression, or my tenuous connection to my True Self, or none of those things. I don't know. You tell me.

See You In The Shadows…

Once you release it, and that means leave it open for downloading you no longer own it. People are entitled t take what they want from it.

It's art, once it is hanging on the wall then it lives for itself

It's good.

That is all, thank you, next! Smile