Understanding Lyrics: An Introduction

by criticalhit009

This post is the start of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics.

Lyrics are often termed as poetry put to music. Although both are meant to be heard spoken aloud, the meaning of lyrics are also influenced in how they are sung (where some words are belted out, or whispered, or shouted, etc.) Though typically lyrics don’t have too much skillful artistry in them (at least by pop music standards), those that do can have profound meaning in them. So here are some guidelines for analyzing lyrics.  This list is from my International Baccalaureate HL Senior English class, designed for analyzing poetry, but the content may also be applied to lyrics. Thanks to Ms. Kope for this, I’m glad I kept this list! This is not the entire or only way to analyse lyrics. This list is just a means to getting at some of the meaning that can be interpreted from lyrics specifically, not including the music, performance, historical and cultural context, and other accompanying meanings surrounding a musical work. A song cannot be evaluated solely on its lyrics, but they serve as an important part to a work. I present these rhetorical tools to help shape the specific conversation on lyrics to sharpen the critical discourse on textual song analysis as a whole.

Understanding Lyrics

  1. Determine the central purpose of the lyrics
    • To tell a story (narrative)
    • To reveal character (dramatic)
    • to impart a vivid impression, mood, or emotion (lyric/lyrical)
    • To teach or convey an idea or attitude (didactic)
      • Remember lyrics can have more than one central purpose, that is to say, it may have elements of two or more of these purposes

Determine how the lyricist’s purpose is achieved by doing the following:

  1. Identify the speaker
    • Who is speaking? To whom?
    • What is the speaker’s attitude?
    • What kind of person has the lyricist created?
  2. Identify the setting
    • Where do the lyrics take place?
    • When does the situation occur?
  3. Determine tone
    • What is the tone or attitude of the lyrics toward the subject matter?
    • Is the speaker objective, subjective, ironic, bitter, etc?
  4. Determine mood
    • What is the mood or atmosphere the lyricist is trying to create?
    • What key words, images, etc give evidence of and support the mood?
  5. Determine theme
    • Is the theme explicit? What lines of the lyrics contain the theme?
    • Is the theme implicit? What lines of the lyrics suggest the theme?
  6. Pay close attention to words and word choice (aka diction)
    • Look at the title. How is it significant? What aspect of the theme or mood does it illuminate?
    • What are the connotations (meanings, associates, emotions connected tot a word, as opposed the word’s literal meaning, or denotation) of certain words? Are there and ordinary words used in an extraordinary way? Are any words repeated, and for what effect?
  7. Consider imagery, allusions, symbols, and figures of speech
    • Are there any allusions the should be checked? Why did the lyricist include these allusions?
    • What is the purpose of the comparisons (metaphors, similes) in the lyrics? Why does the lyricist compare these items?
    • What senses does the imagery appeal to and how? Why are the images presented in the order in which they occur? What is the significance of the symbols?
  8. Consider the sounds
    • Do you notice and alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, or rhyme that is used to create a particular effect on the poem?
    • Does the rhyme scheme or metrical patterns in the lyrics have a purpose, and if so, what is it?
  9. Consider the form/structure
    • Did the lyricist use a specific form? Why?
    • What is the lyricist’s focus of attention? (Pay particular attention the chorus [and bridge]. Why are those lyrics emphasized?)
    • What’s the syntax? (what’s the order of the words?) For example, words at the end of the phrase are given more emphasize, and therefore more importance.
  10. Determine the literary value
    • What lines appeal to you and why?
    • What emotions do these lyrics evoke?
    • If you do not understand these lyrics, what causes this?
    • How skillful is the lyricist?
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