Let me make a simple point before we start. It is not possible to decipher the lyrics of some songs. And even for those that we think we can, we are quite often way off the mark.
So what exactly is using lyrical interpretation to discover the meaning of a song? Well, one thing it isn’t, is being able to always pin down the exact meaning. Does that sound contradictory?
Time, Place, Context, and Observation
You read some interesting attempts. I read recently where the composer said he didn’t know what his song was about, and he wrote it. He said it started as one thing and changed to another. It ended up not being about either scenario, but he left it, as it was for a laugh.
Songs and lyrics are written in a certain time and place. They have a context. Therefore, an interpretation is not completely possible with some songs. Unless that is, you can place them in context.
How then can someone else interpret it? Quite simply, you can’t, especially when observation is essential in the mix. You can read the words, but you can’t fully interpret song lyrics because maybe you haven’t been to the same place. There is an arrogance about people who say they know when they don’t. I will come back to that.
It is a human condition that we try to understand things and put them into little boxes. It is convenient to do that. We sense chaos if we leave things undefined. I shall also return to chaos later on.
Lyrics are just poems set to music. We all know that. Do we use the same methods for interpreting songs as we do for poetry? Do we judge the lyrics in music by the same rules as we do poetry? If so, then lyrics are bad poetry.
Song Lyrics are Often Bad Poetry
Song lyrics break poetry rules. They are weighed down with abstracts, use far too many adjectives, and are often deliberately confusing with subject changes. Sometimes, they do not attempt to tell a story or convey an emotion. And then some other times, they are just words. Chaos.
What Do I Mean?
What would you call the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan if it isn’t chaos? And very tongue-in-cheek chaos. Can you interpret something like that lyrically? Of course, you can’t; it doesn’t mean anything.
But placed in the context of a time and place, and his observations? Then it might be possible to understand Dylan’s reason for writing it. Could you call that a definition of Lyrical Interpretation?
He has arrived in New York from Minnesota. A kid. He was set up as a prophet, a musical Walt Whitman. Like him or loathe him, he was a brilliant poet cum lyricist. He felt frustrated at the way his work was always being deciphered and having “meanings” applied to it.
“The Times They Are A’ Changing” didn’t need interpretation. The words said it all. Dylan didn’t want to be the “Voice of the Generation.” He wanted to write and play songs. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” may well have been his reaction to that. He once said, “Chaos is my best friend.”
The song cannot be understood unless placed in the context of his life at the time. A life that’s full of misinterpretation and chaos. The result was the song and a few others like it. Context is therefore important.
So, here we find one of the first keys to lyrical interpretation of songs. Understand and appreciate the context in which it was written. It is not only the words that we need to look at but the context in which they were written.
The context of the words must be accompanied by an appreciation of the mood. Let’s use an example. “The Long And Winding Road” was written by Paul McCartney and included on the Let it Be album.
The mood here is unmistakably sad and poignant. It has the atmosphere of the fast-approaching break up of the Beatles. And this wasn’t all Lennon; some of it was McCartney as well. There is a feeling of quiet desperation.
Just When All Seems Clear
It was, he claimed, written about a road near his farmhouse in Scotland. The lyrics all seem unambiguous. Easy to apply an interpretation. But is that the reality? The lyrics convey something else by their mood. Was McCartney sending a cryptic message to Lennon in the lyrics?
John and Yoko were about to move into Tittenhurst Park in Ascot. Have you seen the length of the driveway? Was that the Long and Winding Road “that leads to your door”?
The mood of the song, so important here, tells us it could be. The mood of the composer is important when considering the lyrics. Interpretation can be a very personal thing.
A Part of The Whole
When trying to attach interpretation to a song through its lyrics, there is another aspect to consider. Is the song part of a suite of songs, a concept album, or is it a standalone track?
This can affect how we interpret song lyrics. If it is a standalone track, then the lyrics could be taken literally. Although as we have just seen, not always. But, if it is a part of a group of songs forming an album, it could be something totally different.
The interpretation might change. Placed as part of the whole where it is a contributing factor and not a definitive statement, meanings can change.
All in All…
Pink Floyd’s often misunderstood masterpiece contains a song that has been open to many interpretations. “Comfortably Numb,” though, needs to be interpreted as part of The Wall and not as a standalone track.
To interpret this song, we need all the elements. Context, Mood, and now we also include Observation. That is personal observations leading to the despair of the composer. That has a lot to do with interpreting the words and their meaning.
The Observation of Existence
Some would say much of Beethoven’s beauty in his music came from his despair at his increasing deafness. The same can be said of Pink Floyd’s definitive album, The Wall. The increasing despair of life’s burdens reduces someone to solitude for protection against the world.
“Comfortably Numb” is about drug use to survive and to get away from the pain of life itself. About shutting out what is perceived as an evil world full of greed. Got that bit right, didn’t he?
The music was written by Dave Gilmour, but it’s Roger Waters’s semi-biographical lyrics that give the song its despair. Can you interpret that? You can describe the words, but the term interpretation has a deeper meaning than just understanding the words.
Just a Part of the Whole
Listening to “Comfortably Numb” as a standalone track is a great experience. Powerful words that resonate, and a guitar solo, some would say, is the greatest ever. But to appreciate it and therefore interpret it, you need to listen to the whole album.
That is where it fits. That’s where it makes sense. Interpretation of this song needs to be made as part of the whole. And if you haven’t been to the place the album describes, you can’t know. As I said earlier, it is arrogant for people to try and say they understand. In most cases, they should be thankful they don’t.
More Chaos and Confusion
Some composers do it deliberately. Others just stumble into it by accident and make references to the things they know people will try and interpret.
The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” is a good example. “The Walrus” refers to a character from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. But there are references to “Lucy in the Sky.” On the sleeve notes underneath the “I Am The Walrus” title is written, “No you’re Not.” It is like Lennon is saying, “Okay, interpret this one.”
You might say all of these could be considered that. But the point is some songs just cannot be interpreted. Or perhaps I should say, should not be interpreted.
Yes, quite a lot of music has lyrics that need no serious or deep consideration. The words tell it all in simple terms. Or at least that was the case.
These days there can often be hidden meanings in song lyrics. We can read the words, and we can understand the words. But can we understand and interpret the meaning behind them? Even when you are using Lyrical Interpretation to discover the meaning of a song, you still may not be able to make any sense of the lyrics.
Resources for Writing Song Lyrics
Writing lyrics is a real skill. In every genre, there have been and are masters at this craft. But we are not all naturals; some of us need some help.
Do you think you are unpredictable as a songwriter? Unpredictable Songwriting will let you know. If you just want to keep things basic and simple, there is How to Write Lyrics. And if you really want to write something special, Writing Great Lyrics could be a big help.
Want to Know More About Making Music?
Our experts can help. Take a look at our handy articles on Steps to Start Your Music Career, Easy Steps to Learning Basic Songwriting, What is a Motif in Music, What is a Coda in Music, What Is AABA Form In Music, What Is Theme And Variation In Music, and What Are Accidentals In Music for more useful musical information.
An instrument upgrade could help improve your songwriting. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Kawai Digital Piano, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500, the Best Tenor Saxophones, and the Best Alto Saxophones you can buy in 2023.
Using Lyrical Interpretation to Discover the Meaning of a Song – Final Thoughts
Interpretation is something that is a vague description in a sense. How one person interprets something will be different from how another will. But in some cases, it’s best just to not try and put a song in a little box to define it.
It is certainly not an exact science and should never be considered as such. Sometimes, the meanings are buried so that we can’t interpret them completely. At other times the meaning is there for all to see.
Until next time, let the music play.