This is an article I wrote a couple of years ago...it generated some heat over the time as readers on many websites discussed the theory I explained in the article. I am publishing it again here while I work on a part two for the May Monthly Feature.
Music vs. Lyrics (Part One)
A song is music and words, but there are two questions concerning the relationship between music and lyrics in a song. The first is which is more important and the second is which should be written first. This article is about the first question.
To answer the first question, we have to examine the audience perception of songs. Songs are written for people to hear them, therefore their opinion about the song is crucial and to understand their opinion we have to know whether they think more highly of the lyrics or whether it is the music they focus on.
I have come to conclude that different cultures produce people who are biased differently. For example, the Arabic culture and legacy is based heavily on poetry while music remained trivial and forgotten by later generations. Consequently, for Arabic listeners the lyrics come first and music is usually reduced to a melodic vehicle for the lyrics with the least amount of arrangement possible. On the other hand, for Europe the music heritage is enormous with a large number of genius composers, and the connection of these compositions to today is alive and well. At the same time, European great poets used the type of language that today needs a lot of simplification to understand. The music reaches the European listener before the lyrics, the fact that makes artists like Shakira and Gipsy Kings successful in UK even when they sing in Spanish, the same fact that makes Rai singers from Algeria successful in France although a lot of their songs are in Arabic.
So, a good songwriter studies his/her audience and their needs well before he/she embarks on writing a song. This doesn't mean that you can write bad lyrics for English listeners and get away with it; they eventually catch up. Also, Arabic listener will not listen to a song with bad music. So what can a songwriter do with understanding how the listeners think?
It is all about complexity. Arabic listeners will settle down with a nice melody that fits the lyrics well. European listeners will not settle for that, you have to have strong chord progressions , a powerful base line and even a really good drum line. The lyrics ,however, are not poems and are very relaxed. As long as they rhyme and have meaning, every thing is great. Lyricists in the Arabic world are usually accomplished poets with all the Shakespearian attitude that comes with that, and some of the more successful Arabic singers sing nothing but poems that were not intended to be songs in the first place.
Therefore, If you are writing for an English Rock band, make the arrangement relatively complex but keep the lyrics smart and simple. If ,on the other hand, you are writing a song for an Arabic singer, look for a poem that you can write an amusing melody for, and forget about the arrangement...or may be just a little of it :).
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