August 2, 2006

On the nature of songs in everyday life (or, the unbearable lightness of music)

Do you ever get frustrated with the fleeting nature of music, while simultaneously being overwhelmed with the immensity & weight of it? Weird thought, I know, but one I’ve been thinking about lately.

By its very nature, a song is such an ephemeral, abstract thing. Such a small thing, two or three minutes. It’s just a combination of sounds, notes, beats, and words.

And there are so many songs in existence. Thousands and thousands of songs are being written every day. The ones you hear may not be the best. There may be an astonishingly beautiful piece that no one will ever listen to.

It can be so hard to write about music, to share it with others in a meaningful way. It’s like pinning down a butterfly in a photograph album (thanks Adam) and trying to dissect what makes it beautiful. Then what are you left with?

I once read somewhere (if you can find the article, holler) about how Rivers Cuomo from Weezer actually tried to technically deconstruct his hit songs, as compared to the other songs they’ve written that weren’t hits, and tried to see what “the winning element” was. That kind of stuff can drive you crazy. Do you think there is any rhyme or reason behind what makes a “good” song? A “memorable” song? Why do people latch onto one song on an album and not another? Does it make that hit song better than its counterparts?

And what elevates a song or a certain band’s work to hold such meaning in our lives? Someone wrote me recently and said, “I compartmentalize memories into songs or albums and vice versa.” That made me think about the role of music, and I decided that was a fantastic realization because I, too, do the same thing. There are certain songs that I can hardly listen to for the memories it evokes (whether powerfully attractive memories that I can slip into through song for three minutes, or some that are not so pleasant, bringing back melancholy so real I can taste it).

There are days when I want to scrap this whole blog business (but I know I won’t) because, as Elvis Costello famously said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Really stupid. How could you possibly sum up a song in logical words?

But then you read someone like Nick Hornby, who has this magical gift for writing about music and capturing exactly the essence and the passion and the unbridled joy that can be found amidst the vinyl grooves, who says, “I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part….”

It’s just that richness, that strangeness, and that personal internal connection that makes music writing simultaneously so HARD, yet such a compelling and rewarding adventure. That connection with music does indeed defy our best attempts to spit it out.

It’s that moment alone in your room when you first put on a song and just fall silent, transfixed for whatever reason. It’s the time you are driving in your car listening to something and suddenly, unexpectedly, your eyes are brimming with hot tears. An ambush. It’s a turn of a lyric that resonates with something deeply beautiful inside of you. And perhaps it’s the moment you pick up an instrument to make your own unique contribution to the musical landscape. And the cycle continues.

I don’t know how to quantify it, but it is something wild and beautiful. Expressing that wildness is a fleeting, challenging undertaking. Perhaps the weight is a gift.


  • I built a website once for a business that was creating software to analyze songs. One of the things they were going for was to be able to predict hit songs for record companies. They went under in the crash, but I’m sure there’s software out there that does similar to what they were trying to do. But I don’t think music can be quantified so easily.

    Susan M — August 2, 2006 @ 11:28 am

  • Heather,

    Sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Nice Anna Begins reference. Speaking of counting crows, they covered Rock N Roll Star by the Byrds. Adam says before the song, “This song is for everyone who has stood in front of the mirror with a tennis racket, wanting to be a rock and roll star.” So few of us are where we want to be, art has the ability to transport us to some magical place, even if its for a moment, whether it is driving with your foot to the floor listening to The Boss, walking into and looking up at the amazing site of the Sistine Chapel, or that moment, during an evening of culture at the symphony, when your lover reaches over to touch your hand. Its all those little moments, moments of art, that take you away from the real world, a world filled with hate and bombs and advertizing.

    I thought of a nice quote from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poet Society, to end with. I think it sums up how hard it is to write or grade art.

    [after hearing "The Introduction to Poetry"]
    John Keating: Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”


    PS I am counting down the hours till I get to enjoy the art of Ryan Adams….

    kevinstl — August 2, 2006 @ 11:28 am

  • Heather,

    Since what Rivers said about dissecting songs in a mathematical manner has always stuck with me (My BS is in Physics, as will be my MS soon, so making music into math seems quite reasonable to me.) I decided to do some searching. I can’t seem to get the Rolling Stone article in which his dissection is mentioned to load, but here’s the relevant quote:

    “Rivers Cuomo stares at the screen of his laptop, its glow reflected in the lenses of his black-rimmed glasses. ‘Want to see my list?’ he asks, and boots up an elaborate color-coded spreadsheet that catalogs all the songs he’s written in the past three and a half years. Scrolling down, he shows off the latest entry — number 377. There’s pride in his voice, but he seems more excited about the spreadsheet than the prolificacy it documents. … A few years ago, he started keeping a notebook of every song Kurt Cobain wrote. In it, he dissected the songs in as mathematical a manner as he could. ‘He figured if he could home in on Kurt’s formula, he’d figure out his own formula,’ says Todd Sullivan, Weezer’s A&R man. ‘That way, he would be a never-ending supply of songs.’ … ‘It wasn’t only Nirvana,’ Cuomo says, ‘but also Oasis and Green Day.’ He still keeps a three-ring binder he calls ‘The Encyclopedia of Pop,’ full of his analysis of different artists. ‘I’m probably just a natural-born scientist. I like taking notes and analyzing things.”

    Do with it what you will.

    Colorado Springs

    JJ — August 2, 2006 @ 11:48 am

  • H,

    Such a nice article. Definitely made me want to go home and pick up my guitar, and make something wild and beautiful.

    See, you too can be quotable!

    Dusty — August 2, 2006 @ 12:48 pm

  • i think you are really good at writing about music, and i don’t think that about many other people. so there – that’s a compliment! i can’t usually express my feelings about music because they seem personal and unexplainable really. but i definitely relate to what you are saying. the melancholy is the worst – when a song you love becomes unbearable to listen to, now ain’t that a bitch……

    c — August 2, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

  • c put it very well. I don’t think you can analyse why a song moves you, it just does. But as C said you write so well.

    Matt — August 2, 2006 @ 2:22 pm

  • I’m loving Purple Parallelagram as I’m writing this…thanks to you.

    I think you make a good point, and I really appreciate that you take the time to think about and share that stuff with your readers, cause Lord knows there are enough blogs out there just to do well on the Hype Machine.

    Why not dance for architecture? If that’s what you dig…

    Oh, and nice job inserting that Nada Surf song title in your ending sentence. Don’t know if that was intentional or not.


    SL — August 3, 2006 @ 12:44 am

  • this was so beautifully written… thankyou for sharing yr words.

    its hard to show how much feeling consumes us when we listen to music. theres such a power that just stems from it all, that makes the simplest lil sound, so meaningful.

    some will get it immediately, becos they are passionate about it… and to others, it just takes time for they may never see/hear it the way we do.

    nonetheless… its powerful. and to those of us that feel it, theres no better way to describe it than just that.

    music is art — August 3, 2006 @ 2:07 pm

  • Heather? I love your blog.

    Maggie — August 5, 2006 @ 11:58 pm

  • We’re just glad there are articulate people like yourself around to write about music. (I can only come up with adjectives like “great” to describe songs that I like.) I love listening to music and waiting to hear the next song that will sweep me skyward in a way I never expected, but I also like reading about music — history, opinions, analysis, etc.

    Mulberry Panda 96 — August 9, 2006 @ 9:20 am

  • oh man the Nada Surf reference at the end is so clutch.

    Dave — August 11, 2006 @ 12:11 am

  • Please dont ever stop writting Heather, you inspire me and I have been a better person since I found your, I am Fuel, sight. I have improved myself…my small self…(PJ) JohnPaulIII

    John Paul — December 11, 2008 @ 9:50 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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