Monday, February 01, 2016

Sing the intention, not the meaning

We’re always told to focus on the meaning of the lyrics when singing a song in order to communicate it properly and to give some emotion to our delivery.


But what if the lyrics are “lully lullay” or “fa la la” or what if the context seems to contradict the meaning or what if any ‘meaning’ is ambiguous? Then you need to sing your intention. I’ll explain more below.

lyrics don’t tell the whole story

First of all I need to confess: I’m not a lyric person. For me it’s the total experience of a song that counts: words, melody, harmonies, context, number of singers, venue, etc. So when people bang on about “focus on the meaning” I must admit I can’t really relate.

There are many songs which have meaningless words (like lullabies: “lully lully”), ambiguous words (many folk ballads), words whose meaning has been lost (“Lile” from Georgia), and so on.

We also sing songs in foreign languages (including Latin) which can never be translated precisely or whose meaning is culturally specific and doesn’t mean much to us.

Songs can also be presented in the ‘wrong’ context (e.g. ironically) or sung in the ‘wrong’ way (e.g. a heavy metal version of a lullaby).

What about the ‘meaning’ then?

songs come as complete packages, not just words

My own view is that a well-written song (or a traditional song that has stood the test of time) encodes any meaning in its melody, words, rhythms, harmonies, etc. The song will have a ‘feel’. You know what it ‘means’ without necessarily being able to articulate it. That’s why songs are different to poems or stories.

You can choose to present the song with that feel or ‘interpret’ it in your own way to create a different meaning (see How to make a song your own). It all comes down to your intention.

Most songs are intended to communicate something (not all songs though: some are for personal experience or to create a sense of community amongst the singers). You need to know what you intend to communicate before you begin to sing.

get your intention right

It doesn’t matter what the ‘meaning’ of the song is -- if your intention is right then it will come across to your audience. The intention might be to make the audience feel sad, or to scare them, or to draw them in, or to get them to listen carefully, or to tell them a story.

Your intention might contradict or reinforce any meaning that the song might contain. Either way it’s not enough to just know what the song means.

We all know those creepy versions of nursery rhymes that are used in horror movies. That’s a classic example of a song being taken out of context and having an intention that contradicts its meaning. But it works.

further reading

Here are some other posts which might interest you.

Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

What do words add to music?

Song meanings lost in translation

Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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