Full disclosure! I already had a decades-old opinion on this subject before writing this op-ed, but in the interest of being fair, open-minded, and objective, I set my opinion aside and went to work on this post with a mindset of being willing to change my opinion if convinced.
The first thing I did when I started thinking about this question was to itemize the parts of a song and put them on a list. I put a question mark beside each item so I’d be sure to consider each song part individually.
Lyrics? Melody? Harmony? Chord Changes? Rhythm? Title? Rhymes? Verse? Chorus? Hook? Intro? Ending? Tempo? Bass Line?
Looking over my list, my first thought was that all of the items are important but the question asks me to decide which item I feel is “most” important. So in the process of carefully considering each item, I systematically narrowed my list down to two items–lyrics and melody. From there, I very quickly came right back to my original answer. However, I wanted to see what other people thought so I did a little Google research.
After reading differing opinions on the question, I came away with a good understanding of the arguments that many people presented to support views, but nevertheless, I was not convinced to change my original opinion. l still feel that a song’s most important part is its melody.
Lyrics, when they’re present, are unquestionably a very important part of a song because lyrics express in words what a song is all about. A song’s lyrics are poetry that has been coupled with melody to tell the song’s story in a musical environment. A song’s lyrics when coupled with melody can make you feel very happy in a real way. The combination of lyrics coupled with melody can also make you feel very sad and have you crying real tears! Sometimes melodies are written first, then lyrics are added later. Conversely, lyrics may be written first and melodies added later. In either case, melody and lyrics are both very powerful entities that are very closely related and very important parts of a song. However, I feel that most song lyrics are melody-dependent in that, if you strip the melody away from the lyric, you no longer have a song; you have poetry with some type of beat perhaps. The melodies of most songs can stand on their own without lyrics. But again, lyrics performed with out any melodic coupling will result in poetry being recited–not a song being sung.
Here is a song with lyrics that first existed as a very well-known poem by Joyce Kilmer. The melody was composed years later by Oscar Rasbach. To demonstrate the effect and power of melody, please follow this 3-step process:
First: Read the through 12-line, 8-syllable, iambic tetrameter poem. Sans melody, you are reciting some beautiful poetry!
Second: Mouseover the tree to hear a vocal version. Avec melody, the poetry has been transformed into a beautiful song!
Third: Mouseover or click the grand piano to hear me play an instrumental version. Does the song stand alone sans lyrics? Do you recogni,e the song without its lyrics? I do! What say you?
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day;
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain;
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Summary / Synopsis
By definition, the word “song” implies singing. One music dictionary defines “song” as a piece for voice. Whenever voice and singing are involved, chances are, lyrics are going to be somewhere in the mix playing a very important role. But as I considered the overall question further, I asked my self some key questions. Can a song be performed without its lyrics as an instrumental? Obviously the answer is yes! What allows you to easily and instantaneously recognize a song when it is played sans lyrics? The answer is the song’s M-E-L-O-D-Y! Can a song be sung without its melody? No, because singing lyrics without a melody is reciting poetry. To transform poetry into song, a melody needs to be added to the mix. So, song lyrics are melody-dependent because without melody, you’re reciting poetry. Now as beautiful as reciting poetry may be, it is not song singing. Therefore I submit that melody is the most important part of a song.
Here is an example of a singer who completely forgot the lyrics to a significant part of a song during her performance. However, because she was able to stay with the melody, she rode her “melodic ship” out of those troubled waters and straight into a rousing round of applause for her spontaneous and successful song performance and eventually on to a couple of Grammy awards.
Lyrics are very important but lyrics need melody. So for me, melody sits alone at the top of the song part pyramid. Learn and memorize as many melodies as you can! Melodies rule!