Music & Lyrics, Part One

Music & Lyrics, Part One

Most of our regular readers know that I am a fan of many different styles of music. While my first musical love is always going to be southern gospel quartet music, I enjoy anything with a unique artistic quality. Country, rock, jazz, classical, soul, techno….I’ve got quite a variety of playlists.

One playlist in particular is that of musical scores from motion pictures. Genuinely gifted composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, Bill Conti, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, and the legendary John Williams make up a collection of movie themes and incidental music that I often play when my ears need a break from the standard 3-4 chord collection of 4-part harmonies. These men wrote what amounts to the soundtrack of my childhood. Williams in particular has written a number of instantly-recognizable themes and scores, including Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Home Alone. He is the go-to guy for epic music scores.

While Williams’ most popular score is probably the Star Wars series, I believe his best work was done with the first Superman film. His main theme/title march pays homage to the classic radio and TV show themes while going very big and operatic (the main instrumental line almost seems to sing the word “Superman” in the intro), and still today is recognized as the definitive super hero theme. The love theme between Superman and Lois, “Can You Read My Mind,” also became very popular when it was released to radio as a minor pop hit. One of the best cuts on the soundtrack, however, has to be “The Death Of Jonathan Kent.” It starts off as a Norman Rockwell painting set to music before going very quiet and dark and building up to a beautiful crescendo, fitting the tone of the scene to a T.

This raises the question, however – if you remove the words to your favorite songs and simply play the music/melody, does it have the same impact? Part of this question was raised during a songwriting panel at the WorshipLife conference in Gatlinburg, TN last week. Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship and moderator of the panel discussion, summed it up as such: “A great melody will make a bad lyric better, but a bad melody will make a great lyric worse.”

There are some very obvious examples of this in southern gospel music. “Champion of Love,” for example, is hailed as a modern classic with Gerald Wolfe’s vocal performance and Lari Goss’ arrangement, backed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Lyrically, however, the song is a bit cheesy, comparing Jesus to a boxer. Roger Bennett even said that he heard a DJ say after playing the song that he thought it would flop, and Gerald himself once said that he didn’t quite “get” the song when it was first pitched. It took Goss and the London Philharmonic to turn it into an epic classic.

Another Cathedrals song, “An Old Convention Song,” is often performed by other groups and is also considered a favorite of the group, despite there being not one single scripture-based lyrics in it. It’s literally a tribute to old-time music, but because it’s a catchy melody and features many quartet staples, it gets a pass. Just don’t expect it to be sung in a worship service anytime soon (I hope).

And no, I’m not just picking on SG or the Cathedrals. Chris Tomlin currently has a hit on his hands with “Good, Good Father,” which is being played regularly on CCM radio. I even had a request this week to add this song to our church’s song selection for worship services. I said I would add it if enough folks wanted it, but I personally can’t stand the song, mainly because the lyrics seem to me to be lazily written and overly-repetitive (a very common complaint with modern worship songs). What brings this song above the lyrics, however, is the melody, which apparently has caught on with listeners despite the lyric.

So, back to the original question….if you remove the lyrics from a song and just leave the melody, does it have a similar impact? Are there songs you can think of that would prove or disprove this point?

Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at www.kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.

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1 Comment

  1. David Bruce Murray
    Reply July 05, 12:12 #1 David Bruce Murray

    One of my choir members brought up “7-11” music in rehearsal this past Sunday. It just so happened that “I See You” was in one of the books we were working from that evening, so I played it for them. The phrase “everywhere I go, I see you” appears in that 4 minute arrangement somewhere in the vicinity of 40 times. The last four pages are nothing but that phrase repeated over and over.

    I told them they might think some of the songs I choose for us to sing are repetitive, but I do skip some for that reason alone. :)

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