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Noodling with words


As I wander from internet forum to bulletin board and back again, I come across certain topics that come up repeatedly like the sunrise. One of these is a question about the relative priority of music or lyrics when it comes to songwriting. If I pipe up and post a reply it is usually a minor reworking of what I’m always moved to write under such circumstances.

My replies are along the lines that I consider words and music equally important. More than that: I find words to be musical in their own right; their rhythm, the ability to mess with syllable emphasis, alliterations, and so forth… Colour, mood and other quasi-musical qualities are no less applicable to words.

And different accents (US, English – and Scottish) bring different possibilities for exploitation in song. It’s curious that if I (try to) sing a song by an American songwriter, I slip into a kind of mid-Atlantic accent. If I try and sing it in my own accent, it sounds totally inappropriate. The original American accent is part and parcel of the music. In my own stuff, I’m aware that I use (over-use?) a staccato and percussive effect in which my Scottish accent excels in normal speech (an effect which I’ve found has either made or lost me “fans” in equal measure). Conversely, a Glasgow accent doesn’t naturally lend itself to swooning, crooning, romantic ballads. Not sober, anyway.

None of this is in any way surprising ““ poets and creative writers of all sorts have known this for centuries. Why it is a question for modern songwriters ““ viz a viz the relative importance of music and words – is a mystery to me.

Another reason why I find the words and music so conjoined is that I mostly make up my lyrics as I’m playing the guitar accompaniment which invariably pre-exists in a fairly complete form. This is not really singing at all, at first ““ more like a form of scat. A Glaswegian gobbledegook. If anyone were listening outside the door of the room they would think I was unhinged. Sometimes this process results in written down gobbledegook; the only change having place is that the sounds can be found in the English dictionary. Occasionally, though, something coherent pops out from which the whole lyric can organically evolve. Not that this is completely arbitrary (alright, sometimes it is) because since this “scat” is a sort of incomprehensible free-association, the music can provoke some preoccupations, concerns or interests that will bubble to the surface; occasionally to the point of even forming almost fully formed verses. This usually kicks off a flurry of writing with pen upon paper.

In contrast, what I never do ““ unless I’m trying to fill a gap here and there ““ is sit down to Write Some Lyrics. I never do that. Not that that’s not a perfectly fine way to write a song ““ probably superior to my own mumbled meanderings ““ but I just never do it. I can’t sit down with the intention to write a song about ““ say ““ the sun going down over the sea framing the jagged peaks of the Cuillin mountains because no matter how much the recall of that experience moves me, I can’t will the articulation of it in lyrics to order. I have tried and the results show that I’ve tried. The lyrics are a contrivance ““ they lack the spontaneity necessary to every good idea.

It’s more often the hearing of a word spoken that will kick-off an idea rather than any extra-musical notion. Many words are inherently musical in the rhythm of their syllables and disposition of consonants and vowels. Obvious examples are words that are onomatopoeic. I mean, the very word “sleazy” sounds sleazy. Love it!

All of this might explain why I don’t write guitar instrumentals. Words are music, too, and necessary for a thing to be whole.

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