Do Lyrics Really Matter?


Let’s start this one with a bit from the eccentric but always wonderfully quotable Friedrich Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be a mistake”.

This is merely one of the many pieces of wisdom the slightly odd German philosopher managed to crank out about music, and it’s safe to say that many people would agree with a good percentage of them.

The value of music to human civilization is beyond incalculable, no question about it, but as translators we’d like to focus a bit more on the language side of it. Oddly enough, some of the greatest pieces of music written through the ages are completely devoid of lyrics of any kind, so it’s quite clear that the importance of these could be considered subjective at the very least.

From Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Mozart’s piano concertos, to Beethoven’s symphonies and Debussy’s preludes, there are far too many masterpieces of instrumental music to name here that have shaped the western music we enjoy today. This in turn has translated into contemporary instrumental music such as techno, certain genres of jazz, or even heavy metal pieces filled to the brim with lengthy and complex guitar solos that seem to be more than a substitute to any kind of vocal part. 

So what is so special about the lyrics then? Is it the sound of the human voice regardless of the words themselves? Is it the message behind those words? Or is it the perfect combination between the two that make the magic happen?

While an argument can be made for the sound of the voice as an instrument, it’s clear that lyrics without a message behind them lack a certain gravitas that makes them connect to people. It is impossible to know when humans began adding lyrics and messages to music, but one of the most successful institutions to capitalize on this practice was, as it tended to be in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church. Hats off to them and their marketing vision, because they made the magic happen indeed. They presented a product to their flock that tapped into both their emotional sensibilities and spiritual needs. Music and lyrics worked in unison to create something that resonated with the lowest of peasants and the most powerful of kings. 

Fast forward to the modern age and the situation is surprisingly similar. The airwaves (or Wi-Fi spots) are overflowing with lyrics about love, loss, heartbreak, relationships, and all the mainstays of the human condition that can no longer be solved by prayer and confession like when Bach was hammering his organ aimed to the heavens. Lyrics have become so important that they have fueled social and cultural movements, like the hippie revolution in the sixties, or the punk subculture in the late seventies. Since the early noughties, heavily lyrical musical genres like hip hop have crossed over to the mainstream bringing into the limelight the struggle of minorities and poverty-stricken segments of the population.

It’s perfectly clear that lyrics are indeed important and can also be used as a vessel to change the world, but the moment you take the music away from them, their ability to connect with so many people seems to fizzle out and loses its momentum. 

Perhaps music and lyrics are the perfect marriage. 

It is one of those situations in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, and the emotional resonance created by this combination is something that becomes so appealing it transcends any kind of logical explanation. So yes, lyrics do really matter.

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