Lyrics without music are like a clam without a shell.
Songs lyrics are called melic — a word that means the lyrics are intended to be sung.
The word melic comes from the Greek word melos, meaning “song.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that no matter how much one might enjoy a song, the overwhelming majority of lyrics simply don’t hold up without their musical counterpart. When I was a child, I used to puzzle over this a lot. For example, try reading through the following words as though they were a stanza to a printed poem upon a printed page, without considering any of the music that goes with these well-known lyrics:
So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
swimming in a fish bowl,
year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
And what have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
This happens to be a song I very deeply love — a song I’ve heard thousands and thousands of times over the years and a song I never get tired of hearing. Ever. Still, I think there’s no denying the lyrics alone, like virtually all lyrics alone, don’t contain nearly the same depth or power without their beautiful musical counterpart behind them.
I recently (re)came across a set of lyrics, and my first thought was: these lyrics actually do hold up well without music:
There walked a lonely man,
silent, mute, the only man
not knowing how, not knowing why
was he the sole survivor.
Why should he be alive,
breathing still while others died,
and the only question:
why was he the sole survivor?
Sole survivor, cursed with second sight.
Haunted savior, cried into the night.
Wind blew across the sand.
He stood alone and he had no plan.
And with the last rays of the sun,
he screamed aloud, and began to run.
In his tears he sees his face.
I am the end of the human race.
When I’m gone there’ll be no trace.
For I’m the sole survivor.
One night, when years had passed,
The skies shook from a fiery blast.
There came a starship — saved at last! —
To come rescue this survivor.
They beckoned him inside,
but the only man, he would not ride.
Instead he found a place to hide,
for he’s the sole survivor.
Not bad, eh?