The Impact of Musical Environment on Lyrics and Meaning

This post is directed mainly to my undergraduate musicology students, but I am sure other readers will find it of interest to. This week in our class, we discussed the various ways in which the ‘musical environment’ (the sounds and textures of a piece of music) impact and infiltrate the lyrical content. Based largly on Allan Moore’s thinking in his book Song Means, I proposed three environments to consider.

1.Inert: Where the music has no significant impact on the lyrics of a song

2.Active: Where the Lyrics Support the position of the singer or lyrics (Protagonist in song)

3.Oppositional: Where the Musical Texture actually conflicts with the lyric

The examples for ‘Inert’ arguably include the majority of the popular music we listen to, but Active and Oppositional are more interesting. For Active, I used the following examples

  • Annie Lennox ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ (1992)
  • Feist ‘The Water’ (2008)
  • Joe Cocker ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ (1969)
  • ‘Machine Gun’ Jimi Hendrix (1970)
  • Zappa: Rhymin Man

Zappa in fact, for me at least uses this technique more than any other, describing it as ‘American Musical Icons’ in his biography. Essentially, all of these examples include the music working in a symbiotic partnership with the lyrics/singer, to substantiate the meaning of the words.

The Oppositional approach is different, as the musical texture actually conflicts with what the listen is hearing. Having recently wrote a book on Sting, I noted this is a technique that he deliberately employs as a songwriter, with his old hit ‘Next to You’ being a great example – essentially a love song juxtapositioned against a punk rock rhythm. This can’t help but indoctrinate the song with a certain amount of ambiguity.

My task for this students is this: 1) provide examples of ‘Active’ and ‘Oppositional’ in the comments of this post. Provide 2) How does this impact the ‘meaning’ in the song?

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in guitar, Musicology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Impact of Musical Environment on Lyrics and Meaning

  1. Foster the Kids – Pumped up Kicks (Oppositional)
    Whitney Houston – I will always love you (Inert)
    (Katie Bowen)


  2. Gavin Winchcombe says:

    (Active) Bon Jovi – Wanted Dead or Alive
    (Inert) Elton John – Your Song


  3. Elinor Thomas says:

    Billy Talent- Nothing to Lose,
    The lyrics and vocal techniques support the sad driving, descending guitar riff and use of the drum kit. This is particularly shown in the general tone used throughout the song with shout singing at the climax of the song to reflect the lyrics and driving instrumental.

    Hollywood undead- bullet ,
    Extremely happy, bubbly upbeat instrumental and melody that really contrasts with depressing lyrics about suicide, leaving the listener with a juxtaposed meaning.


  4. Jacob Jones says:

    Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel
    The instruments really support the song, supporting the context of the lyrics. The chorus really hits hard with the horns section, driving the meaning of ‘sledgehammer’ with a punchy riff.

    My Forbidden Lover- CHIC
    The song and lyrics do not interact. The chords and notes played do not carry anything ‘forbidden’ about them, i.e. playing out of key.

    OutKast – Hey Ya!
    The feel of the song is really happy and upbeat, whilst the lyrical context depicts the emotional breakup of a relationship that isn’t working for either of the people involved. The song’s tempo is normally indicative of a happy love song; but it is used to juxtapose the lyrics.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Ocean – Martin Garrix :Active
    All shock up – Elvis Presley :Inert
    Joshua Evans.


  6. Joshua Evans says:

    Ocean – Martin Garrix ;Active
    All Shock Up – Elvis Presley ;Inert


  7. Joshua Evans says:

    Musicology homework:

    Inert songs-
    Elvis Presley – All Shock Up
    Stomzy – Shut Up

    Active songs-
    Martin Garrix- Ocean


  8. Gruff Owen says:

    Sting- Desert Rose (Active). The Smiths- Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (Oppositional).


  9. Daniele Calimera says:

    Active: Riders on the storm – Doors
    Since the beginning of the song we can hear storm and rain effects and the keyboard played by Manzarek sound like a cascade, like a rain falling down (also because of the effects of the keyboard), then the guitar with with the tremolo remind us the rain. The lyrics and the solos just reinforce this sensation.

    Oppositional – Always – Bon Jovi
    Despite the sound of the song sound like a love song, for the chords, for the singing intention and for the rhytm , in this song Bon Jovi many times underline that the audience perceive this song in a different way he thought, cause the song, for him, talk about a sexual maniac , rather than being an actual love song.


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