What is a song, anyway?


    A song is a composition made up of lyrics and music, with the intent of the lyrics being sung, for the purpose of producing a proportionate feeling or emotion in relation to a particular matter. Generally speaking, lyrics reference topics and melodies reference feelings (though a beautifully constructed lyric can reference feelings as much as any beautiful melody). A song which combines a feeling that, for one reason or another, is not worthy of or proportionate to the matter at hand is called a bad song. 

    We’ve all heard bad songs and many of us have written them. I use the phrases “worthy of” and “proportionate to” because it shaves off a bit of the idiosyncratic lens through which we often judge the goodness or badness of a song. Try singing the words to the hymn Amazing Grace to the tune of Happy Birthday To You. It’s ridiculous because it produces a feeling disproportionate to the truth that is being considered in that classic hymn. To contrast that, consider your favorite early Beatles song and how proportionate the feelings of young love are with the lyrics and melody at hand. A good song produces proportionate feelings relative to a given matter or experience. 

    Given this definition, Weird Al has made a career from taking feelings and combining them, or misappropriating them, with absurd topics. In other words, he’s really good and writing really bad songs. Further, when we say a song is bad we are disagreeing with how the writer appropriates the feeling with the experience. I’v experienced a break up and disagree with Nickelback on every aspect of how to write a song (combination of melody, lyric and production choices) from that experience.  

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    A songwriter’s creativity is brought to bear on the relationship between a lyric and a melody, and how different variations produce different emotions. Lyrics are distinct from other creative forms of writing precisely because of their relationship to the music through which the words are delivered. The emotion of poetry, for instance, is tied up to the words themselves, the sound they make when plainly spoken, and their relationship to one another. The emotion of a lyric is bound to the music, so much so that it is easy to misjudge the quality of a lyric without hearing the accompanying melody. Often, plain lyrics can be vitalized by beautiful melodies. This is the art of pop music: the art of revitalizing traditional lyrical phrases by new melodic and harmonic combinations.

    Hence, the power of a song is in how a melody and lyric work together to produce an emotion in regards to a particular matter.