Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can words compete with music?

In company with millions of others I have spent much of the late summer indoors despite the warm weather, watching the Olympics and Paralympics unfold in London. I tuned in to the joyful celebrations of the opening and closing ceremonies and felt myself caught up in a swirl of excitement and delight, at one with the happy participants. It struck me how central music is to the spread of fellow-feeling and (yes) love at these times of shared experience. Music is the bond and also the conduit, a channel for expressed emotions and  a carrier of the energy, the electricity that passes between us.


Classical music can stir the passion of a crowd  (witness the Last Night of the Proms for example) but in particular it seems to be certain strains of pop music that carry the special infectious gene. As Noel Coward has Amanda say to Elyot in Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”


It’s hard to tease out quite why. I suppose at the most basic level we seem to respond as humans to beat and rhythm in a way that most animals don’t. There is a binding, a unifying quality to the beat, the throb, the ripple and resonance, the call of the drum, and it must have always been so as there is evidence of group dancing in early cave drawings, and many objects have been unearthed to confirm that our prehistoric ancestors made primitive musical instruments which were mainly percussive.


Melody has been with us just about forever too and, being a useful memory aid, has played a huge part in establishing a collective cultural heritage through oral tradition. Songs pass among us more quickly and easily than poems or speeches, and draw us together more effectively. We might gather to watch and listen to plays but we are rarely active participants in purely verbal dramatic performance as we are wherever songs are sung.


How important are the words? How much of the ‘potency’ of popular music is in the lyrics? Difficult to say in isolation. Staying with the Olympic events for my example, Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony featured Ray Davies of the Kinks singing perhaps my all-time favourite pop song, Waterloo Sunset:  


“Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.”


I can never listen to that line without seeing the couple (in a monochrome long shot) moving into a gentle embrace, or without feeling their loving, sad intensity and an indefinable sense of loss that seems to be both theirs and  mine. I know everything and nothing about these lovers. I am haunted and fascinated by them. Yet the words of the song, as in this one line, are plain, unadorned; the narrative a mere sketch. It’s the music and the vocal performance that provide poignancy, a feeling of an experience beyond the words, the sense of a life lived that has some connection with yours. Spare though lyrics, music and voice are separately, they act together to evoke something ‘other’ in the listener, like a great painting that somehow causes you to see beyond the mere representation in the frame.


Not many popular songs can withstand scrutiny as art in the way Waterloo Sunset can, but they still exert a power over us, not least when we are gathered together, whether as a small group of family and friends, or a large crowd in a concert, a festival or an arena. You can see the power working on our bodies, in our expressions, and in the way we engage with each other, smiling and eyes shining as we chorus words that on the page might look banal or even meaningless. What is that about? I think Nick Hornby gets close to explaining it in his novel High Fidelity when he writes: “Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful at the same time.”


I’m sure that is especially true of music enjoyed as a group experience. I must admit that I sometimes feel envious of the songwriter and performer who can go beyond mere words to make that connection. Words alone perhaps work best on an individual - few of even the great songs can make you entirely lose yourself in absorption, never mind provide insight or life-changing revelation as a great book can - but music works supremely well as a public expression.


I occasionally feel I’m a writer as a second-best vocation (and I’m sure I’ve heard Nick Hornby say something similar) because I do not have the talent to be a musician. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy public readings so much. I like to make the connection. I like to see the light shine in people’s eyes. Nevertheless I can’t stop wishing I’d learned to play more than three chords on my old acoustic guitar.


  1. A lovely, thoughtful piece, David, as usual. I think you have quantified the unquantifiable there! Beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Emma. I think it's a theme I'll return to as there is so much to say about the complementary qualities of words and music.