“Show, don’t tell,” the old saying goes. Good art, whether in film or in storytelling, does not convey its message overtly, but with subtlety. Because good art relies on this principle, we often understand its message on a subconscious emotional level. The same goes for music. We don’t require lyrics and words to bring out our feelings – in fact, the very same words can make a song upbeat or downcast, all depending on the notes and chords behind them.
Take, for instance, these two versions of the song “To Love Somebody.” The Bee Gees’ original version is a beautifully warming love song in a bold major key. Listening to it, one might wonder how those lyrics could be anything else. But the Smashing Pumpkins cover tells a drastically different story. Set in an equivalent minor key, the music takes on an almost disturbingly dark tone, and the lyrics that were enchanting before have become a haunting lament. What’s critical to note is the ambiguity of lyrics. The first version suggests a budding romance or a hopeful prospect, but the other evokes loss and heartache.
True, words are how a story is told. But we don’t listen to music just to hear stories. If we did, classical symphonies and modern electronica would never have been popular. We wouldn’t need music at all if poetry could do the job just by words. But as demonstrated, it’s the instrumental parts that give an emotional slant to the words, directing our interpretations. Even psychology and neuroscience have proven that songs in major keys activate the part of our brain that recognizes it musically, converting the sounds into the positive emotions we experience. Likewise, even a song with happy lyrics will not brighten our mood if it is in a dark, minor key, because our brains interpret the sounds along with the lyrics.
Next time you consider what music you love, go beyond lyrics. Do you love how the music itself makes you feel? The message of the artist? Strive to find this out for yourself, and don’t let your subconscious do all the deciding for you.