Lyrics: how important are they to you?

March 11, 2010

How integral are lyrics to your experience of music? Do you just hear the music unless you are consciously listening for the lyrics? Do you always reach for a lyrics sheet when you get a new album?

After a recent post, in which I discussed the emotional effect of music and lyrics, I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve said, “I don’t really notice the words.” One of my friends remarked that he can’t be trusted to make mix CDs for people who do notice lyrics, like his wife, since he’ll inadvertently include songs on wildly inappropriate topics. I’m in the other camp; for example, I generally prefer instrumentals in techno or electronica, because any words are usually considered as a musical element. Since the meaning itself is usually secondary, they tend to be, for me, distractingly inane.

But this made me wonder: what proportion of people are in each camp? Do you notice and pay attention to the lyrics? Or do you not generally notice them?

So I hereby present a highly unscientific poll:

Feel free to amplify your response in the comments.

MP3: Matias Aguayo – Minimal (DJ Koze Radio Edit)

Image:Singing some Mendelsson tonight:” by Flickr user brownpau, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Lyrics are the single-most important aspect of music to me. But I come from a background of listening to songwriters (Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Cave) and while they often have interesting arrangements it’s the lyrics that hook me. And as a writer/musician – I agonize over the words and everything about the music is to there to supplement and enhance what is going on lyrically.

  2. I am one of those geeks who sits there with the lyric booklet checking out every word the first time I listen to a new record … I’ve always been that way. Which explains why my favorite musical artists are also known as not only great lyricists, but great vocalists … to me, everything else is secondary. If I can’t understand the words, I’m not nearly as interested. And if those words don’t move me in some way, I’m definitely not interested.

  3. It’s not that I don’t like lyrics…I literally have to stop what I’m doing and intently listen to have any idea about what lyrics mean. My brain has never processed audible words very well, be they in music, church, class, presentations, or wherever.

    There are some bands where I can sing along and love the meaning but they are few and far between. On the other hand I often like words in techno but more as sonic elements. Dan Bell does uses his own voice as a sound and/or meaning in his own songs. His vocals aren’t “pretty” when they are intelligible but I like them none-the-less. They feel warm and real somehow. Battles are a rock band that uses their voices in the mix like a normal rock band but distorts it to have no audible meaning with electronics in a way I think references their electronic music influences. On the other end of things in older disco the admittedly inane lyrics have themes that are important to the dance music culture of their time and to some degree our own now. I’ve never heard it done masterfully in person but I believe the stories about people like Larry Levan and his contemporaries weaving the “inane” repetitive lyrics or themes in a song into a more meaningful larger story over the course of many hours. I for one at least love singing along to these disco songs about love, robots, space, or whatever…i’m not really thinking about what they mean though the spirit seeps in I think. It just feels good. They give the song part of its soul for me.

  4. Wow, thanks for the great comments! I find it fascinating that some people can’t really hear them (I suspect that they’d find it just as odd that they are so much in the forefront for me).

  5. I know lots of people who claim to pay no attention to lyrics, but I can’t even comprehend why someone in this position would enjoy rock music, which is intentionally mundanely structured. I mean, to me, rock music effectively all sounds the same (and I don’t mean that as a complaint or criticism at all). I see simple music as a powerful carrier of the message and the textures of the music as coloring.

  6. As you already mentioned, debcha, there are in general different stereotypes of recognizing lyrics. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are flexible that means people (may) listen different to different music styles etc. So

    1. There is a (strong) dependency related to the music style that means whether the lyrics are proper/meaningful or “just” used as an instrument

    2. The occasion when people listen to this music is also important (on a party, at home, …) that means sometimes they listen deeper to the lyrics and on another time they just “dance to the beat”

    3. I think people also recognize lyrics subconsciously sometimes that means they get the meaning of the vocal later in mind

    So I think lyrics are in general very important, independently of whether people listen deeper to the lyrics or just subconsciously.


  7. Thanks for your thoughtful post, zazi.

    I appreciate your point that how people listen to music varies according to the context. And it’s certainly possible that we’re impacted subconsciously by lyrics, even if we’re not consciously aware of them.

  8. excuse me while I kiss this guy….

    hold me closer tony danzer…

    I enjoy getting lyrics mixed up!

    • Ha. Me too. The theme song for my weekend seems to be one with the lyrics, “Put your ass in the air.” However, it sounds exactly like “Giraffes in the air,” which is definitely our preferred version.

      • Roland and I could never listen to whatever that track is that’s all “I don’t want your body / I need your body” without hearing “I need Joe Biden.”

        Someone else on the Internet apparently felt the same way:

  9. For me it totally depends on the song and the artist. The lyrics are really important to my enjoyment of, say, LCD Soundsystem — James Murphy’s vocals are right at the front of the mix and they’re awesome. If I’m listening to it, I’m engaging with the lyrics.

    I’m lazy, though. I started playing a Decemberists track and my roommate started describing the entire Crane Wife (I think it was) storyline, track by track, and I was really impressed. I’d never paid any attention to or picked up on the narrative. Same kind of deal with, like, The National — I can only sing along to a bit of each track.

    Bands like High Places and Broken Social Scene and, I don’t know, Sunny Day in Glasgow that bury their lyrics behind layers of samples or guitars used to really bother me, even though I was happy listening to songs in foreign or invented languages. I’ve come to terms with it, though, I guess!

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