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Poll: What's most important for you in a song?

Vocal style/talent 4 (6%)
Melody/tune 8 (11%)
Lyrics 7 (10%)
Talent/proficiency with musical instrument 5 (7%)
Rhythm/beat 2 (3%)
Whaddya mean MOST? How dare you make me choose, harpy! 46 (64%)
   Discussion: What's most important for you in a song?
John J. Ryan · 18 years, 6 months ago
Great poll! I'd be surprised though if lyrics don't win out. I feel that most people in general listen for the lyrics first, especially in the folk community.

However, if I don't walk away from a song with the tune earwormed, it's no good. :)
Josh Woodward Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
Funny thing is, I don't often listen to lyrics. To me, the mood and instrumentation of a song. Melinda mentioned Radiohead, which is a great example of what I mean. You really can't understand half of what he's saying but the songs are so well-crafted and the mood and production of their songs is so intricate. There's no time to listen to lyrics because so much else is going on. Pearl Jam is the same way for me. The vocals are just another instrument. I guess I'd be a better lyricist if I actually listened to what others were doing, but so be it. :-)

There are a few exceptions to the rule for me, though. Tom Waits and Greg Brown in particular have such evocative lyrics that it's impossible not to be drawn in. Most of Peter Mulvey's stuff is the same way to a lesser degree.
soul groove feline · 18 years, 6 months ago
I'm also a poetry freak, and prefer writing lyrics over playing an instrument or writing music, so this was a somewhat obvious choice for me. Some artists...I dislike their voice (um...no offense, Bob Dylan and Nerissa and Katryna)...but I like their lyrics a great deal.

Music and instrumental pieces are a lot more stylistically picky as well...if you don't like the style of music being played, you may not like a piece, even if it's the most amazing piece ever written. But with lyrics, although they too can have a style...good lyrics can be spotted and appreciated by anyone who likes any style...for the most part, it's either quality writing or it's not.

But on the other hand, if the music sucks, it makes a mockery in a way of the lyrics...all the different aspects have to work together to produce a good piece. but, if asked to choose, lyrics is my vote.
Talcott Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
Yup, I have to second the lyrics vote here.
While I love good music, I can't think of anything I listen to where it's not for the lyrics. Even when I have to look them up because you can't make out a word of them (older XTC, newer Jump Little Children), my love of the song/album becomes much greater when I find lyrics I love.

Honestly, I sometimes think a "bad" or "rough" voice makes a wonderfully- written song better. Bob Dylan's voice is the best voice for Bob Dylan's songs (same with the Nields).
I'm sure my lyrics bias is why I've clung to folk music. While the music part is definitly important, folk's much closer to poetry than a lot of other music

(Not all though. Every type of music can have amazing lyrics. Even though I'm not a fan, I'll admit that there are some rap lyrics (usualy from more unknown artists) that are amazing.)

To me though, the true test of lyrics is how well they stand alone, and the true test of a song is how well the music works with the lyrics. If the music is completly out of place, no matter how good the song is, it does tend to drag it down. That's why I do sometimes like an amazing cover better than the original song.
meh · 18 years, 6 months ago
For myself, there isn't really a clear way to choose what the "most" important thing in a song is. They all can be important, and any can become most important depending on how the other elements layer together. A good voice can sometimes save an otherwise substandard melody. A deeply catchy rhythm might make up for lackluster lyrics.

Usually, it is lyrics or melody that first pull my attention to a piece of music. But -- for example -- there are songs that I'll always turn up for the bass and drums, even though I dislike everything else about them. And there are songs I love the vocal work on, even though I'm not fond of the style, unimpressed with most of the melody, and not particularly thrilled with the play of the lyrics themselves.

And I'm just babbling on now, so I'll start with the shutting up. ;-)

Melinda J. Beasi · 18 years, 6 months ago
Once again I have voted, and once again I feel the need to explain, for what I have answered is not exactly what I mean. I chose #6. I chose it really because of my overly specific mind, and the fact that none of the answers completely fit what I have in my head. Part of this is because I found myself wondering if the question refers to what is most important on first hearing, or what is most important in the long-term. On first hearing, I can say absolutely that I hear the music (as opposed to the lyrics) first, and this is what draws me into a song or artist. By “music”, however, I don’t necessarily mean “melody” (here’s my second quandary). It is probably the melody only about half of the time, if that. The rest (most) of the time, it is the larger musical picture... instrumentation, arrangement, melody, harmony, timbre of voices and instruments... so many aspects of the music that are brought together to create a sound that makes me want to just close my eyes and melt into it. This is what I hear first. This is what I love first. Most of the time, I don’t even hear the lyrics to a song until the third or fourth hearing, and sometimes not even that soon.

Take Radiohead for example... I can understand maybe 50% of their lyrics... which is just fine, because it is their music that draws me in. I may sing along, rapturously, having no idea what the lyrics actually are and barely caring. I would call a song like “The Tourist” one of my favorite songs of all time. I have no idea what half of the lyrics are. But it makes my heart SOAR. It takes me out of myself, and into another world.

In a very different way, I get the same effect from Peter Mulvey’s “Birgit”. I know all the lyrics to this song- it is hard to miss them since they are spoken. Those lyrics are beautiful. Truly. I love them deeply. Still, it was the music that drew me in first, and it was that song that drew me initially to Peter Mulvey. The lush instrumentation and haunting feel of that music just made me ache... one of those glorious melancholy aches that can keep you going for days at a time when nothing else will. I have a similar love for "Tender Blindspot", also largely spoken.

On the other hand (and this is where I come full circle... back to my original question), a song like that will last with me for the long-term because of more than the music, much more. Ultimately, every factor comes into play, and I will love that song for all the reasons mentioned in this poll. One day I’ll be amazed at the guitar playing, another day I’ll have a piece of lyric stuck in my head that suddenly means something to me that it never did before, forever changing how I look at something or someone. In the end, it’s everything. So... y’know... #6.

And I’ll shut up now.

M

ps: I love this poll. I hope you realize that.
danced with Lazlo Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
Agggh! Melinda, Get... Out... Of... My... Brain!!!
Melinda J. Beasi Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
But I like it in there.

:)

m
beth-pseudocanuck! · 18 years, 6 months ago
as a singer, i'm picky about vocals. they've gotta be good. nields? not so much. julie murphy wells? any day of the week. my other main criterion for a song is related--it must be fun to sing!! give me fiona apple anyday for a fun vocal line. odd that i sing alto, infamous for boring lines. lol. la la laaaaaaa! :)
A girl named Becca Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
I'll definitely second you on the fun-to-sing criterion. I sing along to everything. If I'm in a situation where I have to sit through an awful song, I'd much rather be singing it than just suffering through listening. In the process, I often discover that songs like Britney's "(You Drive Me) Crazy" are rather fun to sing, and end up shamefully liking them. I'd also much rather have a harmony to sing along to than a melody, but I'm not very good at making them up, so having a good one already written is a huge plus. Obviously, harmonies add a lot to the listening experience, too, if I'm at a point where I don't know the song well enough to sing. And, in only one instance that I can think of (Chris & Meredith Thompson singing "Amazing Grace," which has been the unrivaled highlight of both my FRFF experiences), listening to harmonies is so intense that it's more important than singing along and makes me shut up completely. Too bad harmony wasn't an option...
bored, bored, bored.... · 18 years, 6 months ago
For me it's all about how a piece of music is put together. How it all fits. I pay attention to how the melody, harmony lines, instruments, voice *and* lyrics work together. When I get a new record (excuse me, CD..showing my age again there.. whoops), I listen to the whole thing through a couple of times, then go back and listen for specific things - the bass line, the harmonies, the instrumentation, the song structure. I'm impressed by songwriters who can actually write a bridge ie. Paul Simon or Mike Ford. Then I listen to the lyrics, and how the singer interprets them.

Then again, I'm just a sax player...what do I know? *grin*
A girl named Becca · 18 years, 6 months ago
I...wow. Tough question. I thought I was being exceptionally wimpy by choosing the "I can't choose" answer...but apparently I'm far from being alone (or exceptional). I still feel the need to defend myself, though...because that actually is my answer, not just a blanket statement non-answer. While no single element can make a song for me, any of them can break it. Hence my once-fierce opposition (now basic neutrality) towards EFO - everything was (is) great except the vocal style, which just didn't appeal to me. (Please don't send me hate mail. I know they're talented. I know Julie's talented. Her voice just isn't my thing.) I also tend to be inconsistent, though...because in some cases, good lyrics/instrumentals/etc. can outweigh a voice I don't care for, as is the case with the Nields. Also, in some instances, catchy tunes can outweigh all else, especially when sung moderately well. This is why I'm a (not-so-closted-anymore) boy band fan. So I guess my real answer to this question might be "the mood I'm in the first time I hear it."
Andrea Krause · 18 years, 6 months ago
I figured the last choice would win out when I made this...heck, it was MY vote. But I was just curious as to whether some folks have strong enough leanings to really commit to one. :)

I'm with others when I say any one of them can make or break a song for me. Great lyrics might make up for a voice I don't like. Though sometimes a voice I don't like could ruin the great lyrics for me. Don't know which way it'll go at any given time. Though it is why I definitely like certain people covered...Bob Dylan, Greg Brown, Tom Waits, etc....I love their songs and lyrics but the voices are just not for me. It's a good way to have a second chance to appreciate the songs. (Or a first chance because their voice kept you from getting to those songs in the first place.)

I also much prefer things I can sing along to, and things which are INTERESTING to sing along to. ('scuse my grammar.) That's probably why I'm not fond of soprano voices...because it's not in my range to sing along and fully enjoy the experience. (Plus, to me they tend to sound overly trained.)

Blah blah blah. So, for me it's a close tie between lyrics, voice, and tune/melody/harmony whatever. Each has taken a turn or twenty at bringing me to artists.

-AK

p.s. Yay Peter! Yay Birgit! That is one of the most insanely beautiful songs EVER.
nate... · 18 years, 6 months ago
There are so many things that can make me like a song...... there are artists, like, Tom Waits for example... that have songs that I like for each reason.... one song, I may like for the lyrics, and can give or take the music... another I could love for the music, but don't really notice the lyrics too much.

Then there are songs like Nuits de Rêve, where I absolutely love the song... and can't even understand the lyrics. :)

As far as Rhythm/Beat...... Soul Coughing. Need I say more? :) I listen to them for the bass/drum groove... period. The "lyrics" are just filler... an additional instrument.... they're nonsense. (Though, interestingly enough, Mike Doughty himself writes some very good lyrics with his solo music....)

There are also some songs out there that I consider to be "perfect". I love the lyrics, I love the music... I love the production. Any time I find a song like this, I'm just amazed. BNL happens to have a few of them... which is just absurd. The kind of song you listen to... then you have to turn off the stereo afterwards, just let it sink in.. and think... "wow". (I Want You by Costello.... Wrap Your Arms Around Me, Blame It On Me (and others) by BNL, etc.)

So yeah, I would have to say that I can't pick one "most important" thing aspect of a song..... it just has to pull me in somehow. :)

Joy- new picture! · 18 years, 6 months ago
I realized the other day that nearly every group I like is particularly vocal-based. Most have heavy harmony (GBS, EFO, Fruvous) and some just have one incredible lead vocal (Shawn Mullins, Tori Cassis). I agree that rythm is important, and I love complex lyrics although I usually don't hear them until after I know the song well. Wacky wiring, I guess. *does the a cappella dance*

Maybe it all ties in with the bass fetish. But I'm going vocals!
Doktor Pepski, kommie · 18 years, 6 months ago
They are the reason a song exists. The first thing a writer does is write down the words. They may start as a poem or what not, but the words ALWAYS come first!
A girl named Becca Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
That's actually not true. The songwriting process totally depends on the writer...some write lyrics first...some start with a guitar riff or a melody...most of the songwriters I know don't really have a system...they just work with whatever part of the song hits them first.
Josh Woodward Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
That's not really true. :-) Many, many writers.. probably including Fruvous.. tend to start with the music first, not the lyrics. I find it incredibly hard to start with lyrics, because it's hard to get the meter consistent when you go to put music with it. It's much easier for me to start with a few riffs, come up with a melody, and take the mood that the music has created to set the tone of the lyrics.
nate... Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
I disagree.... I know that my last roommate was a fairly prolific songwriter and musician... and he always just came up with a riff in his head.... he'd just noodle around with it... on guitar... on bass.. whatever...then the idea of a song would eventually come to him... as music. Only then would he think of words for it. Several musician friends I know operate this way....

Of course, everyone works differently.... I'm sure there are plenty of songwriters who DO write the lyrics first..... I just think you're being fairly closed-minded by saying that ALL of them do.

My $.02
Melinda J. Beasi Back · 18 years, 6 months ago
I too have to respond to this. I AM a songwriter, if not a known one, and I would say that more than half the time for me the song starts with a piece of melody or a guitar doodle, and even the ones that start with a verse of lyrics never get past that point without music being added. Just as I have never written a whole song music first, I have also never written a whole song lyrics first. They come in bits for me. The music is as important (if not more, for me) as the lyrics are in the meaning of the song. If it was not, there would be no reason for songs- we would just write poems. So in a way, you could say that music is the reason that songs exist. Music tells us how to interpret the lyrics, and what is unspoken behind the lyrics, which is often more to the point than the lyrics themselves.

M
Bruce Rose · 18 years, 6 months ago
First, Andrea, Great Poll Question!!

I had to go with the vocal style, although it was a hard choice. Melody was probably my second choice. While I could argue any of these choices (Where was this question in debate classes???), I find that lyrics can get in the way sometimes. Proficiency tends to distract from the tune (example: Jimmy Page). The melody is what makes me stop the radio scan, but the vocal style will keep me from restarting the scan.

Details upon request.

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