What Do You Listen For? A Debate on Sound Versus Lyrics

            Maturing is realizing that there are two types of people in this world. There are the people who listen to the music for the sound – the beat, the instrumental arrangement that creates that compelling hum-able melody – and there are those who listen to the lyrics – the meaning, the story, the words that demand the attention of the ears.

            I finally discovered this human truth during a morning coffee chat with my roommates. I had mentioned a Lumineers song I had been listening to lately ever since I had first heard it (“Donna”). I mentioned how the first couple lines of the song had made me cry immediately after I had heard them for the first time – I was driving at the time unfortunately, and I was almost unable to see the highway because of the sudden rush of tears that had flooded my eyes. I thought the story was a funny little anecdote, but my roommates looked confused. They didn’t understand how a song lyric could do that, blind someone with tears so intensely. But it wasn’t because they didn’t find the lyrics sad, it was because they didn’t put weight into the lyrics when they listened to music. They listened for the sound, which is why when I played “Donna” for them, trying to smugly prove myself right, they only commented on the melody, the instrumentals.

            So, what is the reason there is such a divide? Why do some listen to the sound when others consider the lyrics? At first, I thought maybe it had something to do with left/right brained people (left being more math and science based, right relating to an inclination towards literature and art). Both my roommates are STEM majors, I am a humanities major. Maybe when listening to music I focus on what I study – words, lines, stories – and they are more critical of the composition of music itself – arrangements, where and when a sound comes in, how the crescendo adds and subtracts sound to give them goosebumps. But three people was too small a population to decide anything for certain. Naturally, the next step was to take it to Instagram.

            I put a poll out asking people to vote on whether they listened to music for the sound or the lyrics. The results consisted mostly of my closer friends, and I knew their fields of study. But the results showed absolutely no pattern. My friends from English classes occasionally chose sound, my STEM friends sometimes voted lyrics. The final toll came to 37 for sound, and 31 for lyrics. So, what is the pattern? Why do some people focus on the lyrics and others the sound? My conclusion is that it all comes down to a few things.

            The first, is situation. Some people have a natural inclination to listen to either option for a multitude of different reasons. If they want to memorize the song, they focus on the lyrics so that when it plays in the car later, they can belt it out with their buddies. If you’re in the gym, trying to get pumped for a workout and focusing on your task of lifting weights (or whatever you do there), then maybe you only want the melody to pump you up, the EDM dial switches to push you to a new PR. Finally, if your sad and you want to listen to sad music (because for whatever twisted reason, we all know doing so helps), then maybe you listen to both: the sad drawn-out violin notes and the gut-wrenching lines about heart breaks. Depending on when, and why, you are listening to music might determine what you listen for.

            The second conclusion I’ve come to is that some people place importance in different aspects of music. Someone who likes to read and feels themselves moved by poetry may find themselves listening for what is said. For those who like a swift beat, a smooth melody, an intense head banging bop to dance to or feel, then they might focus on the melody. It all comes down to what the listener determines as important, what they are trying to get from the music itself, what the decide as the point of listening. And I think this has the potential to change when the listening situation does.

            Finally, I have concluded that the focus on one aspect, whether it be lyrics or sound, is only emphasized by the presence of the other. Lyrics don’t exist without melody; beat doesn’t flow without verse. We can choose which we find more compelling, but the ability to have opinion and preference only exists because there are two choices. And so, if someone were to say they focused on the lyrics, they are acknowledging how they enjoy the way the lines work coupled with the sound. There are times in which these two features separate – a Pink Floyd guitar solo, a sample of a phone conversation during “20 Something” by SZA – but it’s the intertwining of each that creates music, and so by focusing on one feature, we are appreciating how, coupled with the other, it makes up the whole.

About Ava Mamary

Ava is an English and Communications major who believes filling her backpack with iron-on patches and pins is a personality trait. When not listening to older folk/rock music from before her time, she enjoys indie pop/rock, alternative R&B, and will talk to anyone about how she believes SZA’s CTRL album has no skips.

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