Lyrics Without Music
  • lyrics

    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?

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

8 Responses and Counting...

  • sandy 07.18.2013

    You are right about Wish You Were Here. I don’t cry when I read the lyrics. 🙁

  • No more tears, Sandy.

  • L

    Hmmm…sounds like a challenge, I’ll bite. Political, morbid, and violent – but perhaps it works?

    Come you masters of war
    You that build all the guns
    You that build the death planes
    You that build all the bombs
    You that hide behind walls
    You that hide behind desks
    I just want you to know
    I can see through your masks.

    You that never done nothin’
    But build to destroy
    You play with my world
    Like it’s your little toy
    You put a gun in my hand
    And you hide from my eyes
    And you turn and run farther
    When the fast bullets fly.

    Like Judas of old
    You lie and deceive
    A world war can be won
    You want me to believe
    But I see through your eyes
    And I see through your brain
    Like I see through the water
    That runs down my drain.

    You fasten all the triggers
    For the others to fire
    Then you set back and watch
    When the death count gets higher
    You hide in your mansion’
    As young people’s blood
    Flows out of their bodies
    And is buried in the mud.

    You’ve thrown the worst fear
    That can ever be hurled
    Fear to bring children
    Into the world
    For threatening my baby
    Unborn and unnamed
    You ain’t worth the blood
    That runs in your veins.

    How much do I know
    To talk out of turn
    You might say that I’m young
    You might say I’m unlearned
    But there’s one thing I know
    Though I’m younger than you
    That even Jesus would never
    Forgive what you do.

    Let me ask you one question
    Is your money that good
    Will it buy you forgiveness
    Do you think that it could
    I think you will find
    When your death takes its toll
    All the money you made
    Will never buy back your soul.

    And I hope that you die
    And your death’ll come soon
    I will follow your casket
    In the pale afternoon
    And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
    Down to your deathbed
    And I’ll stand over your grave
    ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

  • Hiya L! I thought those started out a little iffy but gained steam by the end.

    Thank you. And thank you for dropping by.

  • Hey there, sport.

    Several years ago on my crappy radio show, I interviewed two-time U.S. Poet Laureate BIlly Collins. The topic of conversation was lyrics as poetry. He was far and away my best guest ever, yourself excluded, obviously.

    We talked for 45 minutes about rock, country, rap, metal. What made sense, what didn’t. What you could forgive if the band sounded halfway decent, what lyrics could never be forgiven. It was a lot of fun.

  • Hi Nick! It’s nice to see you here.

    I know who Billy Collins is. In fact, I know his poetry pretty well. What, if any, song lyrics stand out for you? And what, if any, stood out for him?

  • Here’s a really beautiful love song I saw performed last summer that doesn’t make me puke:

    “If I Could Forget to Breathe” – John Gorka

    If I could forget to breathe
    Forget to breathe entirely
    It’s happened down through history.

    And surely I could lose my head
    Some night I could drink too much
    And take it off and just forget.

    And I will learn all languages
    I will speak in every tongue
    And return all that time manages
    To steal from everyone.

    Someday I will paint the sky
    I will build a ladder, make a roller
    That could reach that high.

    And nothing that I do will pass
    Everything I will and make and feel
    And dream and know will last.

    I will rid the world of sorrow
    Stop all wars and pain
    I will tell you of tomorrow
    As I rule the wind and rain.

    I can do it all it’s true
    But only when I’ve done all that
    Oh will I turn away from you
    Only when I’ve done all that
    Oh will I turn away from you


    There’s a line from an old Webb Wilder song that I’ve always liked. Technically, it’s not grammatically correct, but you’ll get the point:

    “If she don’t drive you crazy, I guarantee you’ll be close enough to walk.”

    Billy and I talked about a bunch of different songs. We chose ones we liked and ones we hated. I forget most of them, but there are a few that stood out. I’ll have to go back and listen to the show again, if I can stomach it.

    I liked Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” and George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

    Billy liked Mark Chesnutt’s “Too Cold at Home” and laughed at “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

    BILLY: “The room was humming harder / As the ceiling flew away / When we called out for another drink / And the waiter brought a tray.” Really? If you’re so far gone that the ceiling is flying away, should you really be ordering another tray of drinks?

    ME: Billy, at my parties, I don’t even start inviting people until the ceiling flies away.

    I closed the show by having him critique my best poem, which I wrote 4,000 years ago in high school.

    It’s called “Ode to My Brother Who Was Decapitated by a Low-Flying Aircraft While Hunting Water Fowl”

    I said “duck!”
    He said, “where?”

    Billy said I was “standing at the crossroads of genius and brevity.”

    I’ll take it.

  • Those are good, Nicky. Very good. Particularly that last one. Thank you.

    (Sorry your comment got held up in moderation. )

    Thanks for dropping by .

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