Debate: Music vs. Lyrics

What's more important - the music or the lyrics?

Ultimate Guitar

The music vs. lyrics debate has been raging on in the rock world for quite some time, going far enough to divide the fans to the so-called music people and the lyric people. We'd like to see how UG community feels about this one, so we'll elaborate both stands a bit and then it's your turn to let us know which side is the dominant one around here.

Music is what it's all about, obviously

So here's the first stance - music, or the instrumental part is the focal point of the song. Some tend to argue that the lyrical part is even capable of ruining the perfect setting created by the instrumental section. You could say that music is far less "tangible" in a certain sense, therefore providing the listener with a more subjective experience and a greater freedom to interpret the musical nuances rather than just follow the story.

Another notable argument from this side is that even if we put the instrumentals aside, music is still the most important part. The "music people" often point out that music is still far more important, even if the song has lyrics to it. Basically, lyrics are still just an extension of the musical part, with the singer's voice being just another instrument. Also, the way certain words are crafted together and the singing melody they're assigned with is far more crucial than the meaning behind them.

Supporters of such claims usually point at a vast array of pop songs (Outkast's "Hey Ya" might pop up) or even rock and metal classics, saying that in a lot of cases words themselves don't hold much value and could hardly garner much attention (at least the positive kind) as poetry. Without the music and the melodic part, they would mean nothing. But there's also the other side...

No way, lyrics are the thing

How can you possibly say that lyrics are the secondary ingredient of the song?! Ever heard of Cohen, Dylan, Waits, Cave, Young?!

That was pretty much the reply of a "lyrics person" to the writing above. The second part of the music community values the lyrical content over the instrumental parts. They insist that cleaver wordsmiths have the equal power of taking the listener above and beyond, delivering a magical experience primarily through the power of words.

Similarly to the first bunch, they might even diminish or insult the other group, this time around saying that humming along to the catchy melody and random lyrical cliches is the most shallow thing a music fan can do. Properly enjoying the work of a fine songwriter requires that you sharpen up a bit and focus on what the artist is saying rather then just senselessly bop your head to the beat.

So who's right here?

Well, you tell us. Are you a music person or a lyric person? And for that matter, is UG a musical or lyrical community? Let us know in the comments.

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Really I think it depends on the style of music. Punk, for instance has more emphasis on lyrical content then the actual music whilst Jazz has more attention to musicianship.
    This is the only correct answer - Different musical genres lay different emphasis on what is important. Post rock, jazz, classical, some pop, glam rock/metal, and such doesn't lay much weight on lyrics, but more the music itself, and within those genres they lay different weight on what elements of the music is emphasized. On the other hand, punk, alt-rock, folk, and some prog puts a great deal, if not mostly more weight on lyrical quality. And even within all those different genres mentioned above they have their own rule-breakers, taking an opposite approach. In general terms, the genre is usually a strong indicator on what part is emphasized, but it's mostly up to the band themselves to decide. Regardless, it's idiotic to argue that "lyrics are more important/better than the music itself" and vice versa, as it's strictly a matter of personal preference, both of the listner and the musician.
    Agree, I think it all comes down to what the musicians are trying to tell us in the end. For example, it's quite pointless to slag rap music off for being repetitive or simplistic (it's a strawman, yes, but consider it for argument's sake) when it's the message that matters. Likewise, it's silly to hate on jazz, classical and etc for focusing on the music, not on the lyrics.
    You've got to realise that a song wouldn't be a song at all without music...Even if it is just a singer singing....they are using an instrument to create music whether actually speaking words or not. But if they were to just stand there and speak lyrics that would not be music at all. This therefore proves that the lyrics could not exist without music in the first place as they might as well just be called poetry
    Forgot to mention that on the other hand music doesn't need lyrics or even vocals to still be considered music and have a melody.
    Amen, take for example a band like Katatonia, While the majority of the atmosphere of their songs is created by the music itself, what makes it stand out to me is the lyrics, where else a band like Periphery or Meshuggah alot of the attention as Nuclear said is given to the music rather than lyrics. It all comes down to the style of the song. Me personally, im much bigger on lyrics than music, maybe its because im more of a vocalist than guitar player, but ive always payed more attention to it.
    Lyrics without music is poetry. Music without lyrics is still music.
    That's the way I've always seen it. Music is one form or art that can be complemented by another form of art like poetry/wordplay/spoken word, whatever you want to call it and we tend to just call the total package music.
    Technically speaking, sung lyrics without music is just simply called a song.
    If you sing them then you add music to them. The lyrics by themselves are not music. They can greatly influence how good a song is but by themselves they are not music.
    song [sawng, song] Show IPA noun 1. a short metrical composition intended or adapted for singing, especially one in rhymed stanzas; a lyric; a ballad. 2. a musical piece adapted for singing or simulating a piece to be sung: Mendelssohn's “Songs without Words.” 3. poetical composition; poetry. 4. the art or act of singing; vocal music. 5. something that is sung. There you go, by dictionary definition, lyrics do not need music to be a song.
    I like to think of the lyrics as an extra instrument. Like Cobain said, the words have to sound right.
    It's music so it must be there some melody, harmony, time signature ecc. otherwise it's not music. The lyrics can be added but are not the first or most important element although some artist have written incredibly deep and moving words.
    I usually don't like songs that don't have good musical stuff and are solely based on lyrics. Some songs have so fun/deep/whatever lyrics that I listen to them just because of the lyrics. I think both are important. If the lyrics are absolutely terrible, it can ruin the song. But I rarely decide not to listen to a song because of crappy lyrics if the music part is good. Some people said punk is more focused on lyrics than music which I don't really agree with. I think the main part of punk is the attitude. I don't usually care about punk lyrics. Just my opinion. Rap is the only music that would really be nothing without any lyrics. Though rap songs do also have really cool grooves sometimes. So you could also make a rap song with completely gibberish lyrics.
    Punk is political; that's why people say the lyrics are more important than the music. Punk lyrics are typically about topics like civil rights, feminism, anarchy, abuse (advocating against it), counter culture, veganism, straight edge, etc.
    All about the intention. Some Lightning Bolt songs have lyrics in them but they're usually nonsense or incomprehensible. It's intentional, they're using the voice as just another source of noise and not to send some sort of a message. Thom Yorke did the same during Kid A. But some artists like to write songs with stronger intention in their lyrics, and so I'll pay attention to the words more. Sometimes they're even the most important aspect. Most songs I find lie somewhere between those two cases.
    First of all, you got lyrics and vocal mixed up. Lyrics are just the words, not the melody. Secondly, it really depends on the genre and the song itself. Take folk for example, it emphasizes the lyrics as opposed to rock. (and no, the debate has not been 'raging on in the rock world', you probably meant music world in general.)
    If its good music I could less less if it has bad lyrics but good lyrics is a bonus
    Tim the Rocker
    It's ridiculous that this is even a discussion... So many details, so many genres, so many bad singers, good singers, bad musicians, good musicians... I will say this, tho; I prefer quality music over quality voice/singing, except if I'm listening to an artist like, say, Elvis or The Boss...
    Hey Ya has some pretty good lyrics TBH, rhyme scheme is solid. The second verse after the first hey ya in particular has some tasty hooks to it.
    Lyrics are writing. If one desires a "magical experience" with words, they could purchase an audio-book of Kafka's Metamorphosis or something of the like. If a band is appreciated for their lyrical content, then that is an assessment of literature, not music. Of course different words have different timbres and whatnot, but seeking certain sounds of words is different to seeking "meaning" in music. Disturbance in air to create sound has no meaning until a culture places criteria on it, such as melody, rhythm, harmony, et cetera. Some people even say "emotion" and "expression" are criteria for music. Nonetheless, listen to a band which emphasises lyrics, such as One Direction, for "meaning", and listen to collections of pleasurable sounds for music.
    Bob Dylan said they are both equally important. So I will take that as the definitive answer.
    Music is important, it's the part that you notice more before you even get to know the lyrics. It stands out more because you feel it, it sets the mood. However, in the end I think lyrics are the most important factor because it vocalizes and makes clear the message/story you want to tell the listener.
    Jacques Nel
    Vocals is just another instrument in a song. Like the guitar and the riffs you play with it go hand in hand, so does the voice (vocals) and the lyrics that go with the vocals. A bad singer can ruin a song, a bad instrumentalist can ruin the same song. Every part of a song is equally important. Lyrical content can completely change the way a person feels towards a song. In the end it comes down to writing style and musical style. Some musicians, like Kurt Cobain, are/were advocates of writing music first and lyrics over the music. But, there are just as many who prefer the opposite. In the end it comes down to personal preference.
    I don't really consider lyrics and music to be the same thing. Vocals, yes. And the words influence the cadence of the vocals. But the actual lyrics aren't musical in the same sense that the instruments are. They act on the music to give it meaning, but they don't contribute to the actual music itself.
    I agree with you in part however if you remove the melody from a vocal line the resulting lyrics alone still contribute varying rhythmical patterns which still have to be specifically crafted. Add to that the fact that individual words have very individual timbres and it could be argued that writing lyrics is no different than writing any other instrumental part, in that you still have to consider the same constructional aspects.Like many have already said I myself personally find that initially the musical content is what captivates me and the actual musicality of a song, it is thereafter upon further listens that I can appreciate and admire an artist's lyrics
    A good song ( melody and lyrics over a chords progression) is important...a good song can be played with minimal instrumentation meaning the 'music' isn't as important. The music is subjective and depends the taste of a listener.. A song can be displayed in a variety of musical showcases...or genre's if you like.....But...instrumental music is as popular, whether it be dance, house music for example, or orchestral..meaning the lyrics aren't always important..but those instrumental music pieces still have melody over the top of the chord's all subjective so there is no right answer..but I'd say the majority of people' find something lyrical to follow as its rememberable, even if it's HEY YA'..and this cements the melody in peoples heads and determines whether they like it...if they don't like the music in which it is presented they are less likely to like the overall piece of music/song
    well, I guess both things are important but can also be alone. For example Buckethead, his songs speak for themselves lyrics would ruin it
    Buckethead is instrumental. Technically, his music isn't "songs"; it's all musical "pieces". Musically, song implies that someone is singing.
    I'm primarily listen to the music, and only after a while start to listen to the lyrics. So lyrics are at least secondary to me, however brilliant they might be
    Music for sure. What makes me come back for another listen is how it sounds and its hooks, not the content of the lyrics. In fact, I barely think of the lyrics when I listen to a song for the first few times, I just listen to the sound of it and the dynamics etc.
    Yes I agree with have to have a reason to read in to the story and the music and melodic hooks is what grabs the initial attention
    You need 'both' in my opinion...good tune, good words to that tune. For me, if one is bad, then usually it just won't catch my attention enough to actually 'listen' to it.
    Ah, hasn't anyone seen "Eddie and the Cruisers," Words and Music! What would happen if the electricity weny out during a concert? Could a band revert to playing without electricity and play it straight, no fanfare or pyrotechnics, just music. What will make the fans pay attention is the message through song that you're trying to convey. I mean would Megadeath sound like James Taylor, without the electricity?