Yesterday, my husband handed me an article by New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham on his love for Motown and Holland–Dozier–Holland (H–D–H). This passage jumped out at me:

H-D-H always wrote and arranged the music first, and even without lyrics their compositions speak of romance that is wrenching and helpless, though not always sexual. There’s certainly little foreplay to be found: the chorus often leads an H-D-H song, a bit of anti-magic that reveals the big trick at the outset but somehow manages to build on that foundation a structure for suspense. This is another thing I learned: to “show your cards,” in art or in life, isn’t always an act of total honesty.

There are two pieces to this that I’d like to tease apart. One is the comment about the chorus as “big trick.” I’m finding myself increasingly fascinated by how, whether and where choruses are deployed in a song. It’s one of the things that has drawn me to Sam Phillips, who seems to be constantly fiddling with the relationship of song to chorus. But I’m going to put a pin in that topic and come back to it, because it’s a post of its own and there is other ground to cover today.

The other part that caught my eye was the part about how H–D–H composed and arranged the music before considering lyrics. You hear stories like this over and over, how a songwriter gets a riff in his head (in these stories the songwriter is almost always a he. That’s also a story for another day.) and bangs out a tune and brings it to band practice and someone else comes up with lyrics and boom, they have a hit record.

Songs–lyrics; lyrics–songs. What’s more important? What comes first? In my last post, I talked about Sam Phillips’ music as supporting the lyrics. But is that how she writes? I’m not sure. Maybe the lyrics were written to fit the tune. That is a common approach for pop and rock songs. There are dozens of stories about songwriting legends who’ve written iconic songs this way. One of the best known is the story of Paul McCartney and the Beatles song “Yesterday,” which began life as a tune with dummy, place-holding lyrics as “Scrambled Eggs.”

Here’s “Scrambled Eggs” as McCartney performed it on Jimmy Fallon in 2010. Pretty sure these lyrics have nothing to do with the original. They’ve got Fallon’s fingerprints all over them:

Scrambled eggs
Oh my baby how I love your legs
Not as much as I love scrambled eggs
Oh we should eat some scrambled eggs

Waffle fries
Oh my darling how I love your thighs
Not as much as I love waffle fries
Oh have you tried the waffle fries

They are
So damn good that they should be illegal
They’re like
Regular fries but they’re shaped like a waffle

Chicken wings…
“Chicken wings? No, no, no… Vegetarian, no chicken wings.”
“Oh, I forgot, it was actually…”
Tofu wings
Oh my baby when I hear you sing
All I think about is tofu wings
Oh did you bring the tofu wings

There’s a
Place I know where I go for kick-ass wings
We could
Even get a side of onion rings

Scrambled eggs
Oh my baby how I love your legs
Not as much as I love scrambled eggs
Oh let’s go get some scrambled eggs

And here’s the Beatles song we know and love:

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be.
There’s a shadow hanging over me.
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.

Yesterday love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.

Yesterday love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm

But when your background is in classical music composition, music before lyrics seems backwards. Or at least, it does to me. In classical composition, you tend to talk about text setting, not songwriting. I had dozens of assignments in college and grad school to find a text and set it to original music – even then I was fascinated with illustrating text and orchestrating it for solo voice. But I never had a single one about adding text to music. The approach is very different. I spent many lessons with my graduate school composition teacher discussing how to write music that reflected not just syllabic accent but emotional cadence of spoken text in music, how to use sound to reflect textual meaning. But what about the case of using text to reflect sonic meaning?
As I considered how to approach this, I thought back on some experiences where the music did come first.

  • In graduate school, a choir I sang with performed with a modern dance troupe. We stood, carefully placed around the stage, singing renaissance music while the dancers moved in front of and around us. This was my first experience working with a choreographer and I remember being puzzled by the way that the dance movements had rhythm and structure all their own. They weren’t necessarily aligned with the music we sang, although the choreographer had very carefully selected that music. When I asked her about it later, she said that when she made dances, she chose music after she had choreographed the dance. The movements weren’t supposed to line up with the sounds but to play off of them, just as the dancers played off of the singers standing on the stage, moving very close to us and then, suddenly, away. The audience perceives what happens as planned interaction, but in fact, the interaction was always changing. As we worked with the dancers more and got to know each other’s rhythms and tendencies, we adapted. This was what the choreographer liked about the process, taking two beautiful things and making something entirely new by putting them together. At the time I thought of Charles Ives’ experiments with superimposing multiple tunes as in his Country Band March:

But now I wonder if music and lyrics might be coerced into a similar relationship.

  • When I used to teach the undergraduate music history survey, when we got to 19th-century program music I’d often introduce the concept by having my students listen to Vltava (The Moldau) from Smetana’s Ma Vlast or sometimes Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and ask them to figure out what the music was programmatically “about.” The answers were always entertaining but the real answer was that no, of course they couldn’t figure it out. There was nothing in the music itself that could tell you the narrative that lay behind it. We interpret the music based on the narrative we hear. So while program music is lyricless and depends on an external narrative, song lyrics can perform much the same function from within the song itself. In my last post I interpreted the scoring of Sam Phillips’ “Taking Pictures” as evoking and commenting on the nostalgia described in the lyrics. But maybe my interpretation of the sounds as nostalgic is colored by the lyrical story I’ve been told – it almost certainly is.
  • While I’ve never written a song first and added lyrics to it, I have added lyrics to music that already exists. Most of us have, at one time or another, probably done this kind of thing. When my son AJ was small, we used to make up dozens of songs about our cat sung to other people’s tunes, just for fun. But more practical for a musicology student studying important repertoire is the practice of adding lyrics to a piece to remember it. There are books of musical mnemonics, but the ones I remember best were the ones my study group made up together. The most legendary set of lyrics came from a music theorist friend of mine who informed us that the way to remember the fourth movement of Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World” was to sing the lyrics, “I want to masturbate; please leave me alone.” This has forever ruined Dvořák for me. Or at least, it has ruined Dvořák for whomever is forced to listen to the fourth movement with me while I’m losing the battle not to snicker.

So I admit, music can come first. We can establish at the beginning the flowchart of songwriting, there’s a fork: lyrics or music. I’ll keep an open mind.



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