I Want Music to Be Space

In which I describe my complicated relationship with lyrics from World of Warcraft Machinima to Electronica.

April 18, 2018

I used to despise lyrics.

To be more specific, I used to actively avoid songs that had lyrics in them. I purely listened to instrumental music (and still on average largely do) and decided I didn’t like most songs just because they had lyrics in them.

I know this is a strange viewpoint (and, let’s be honest, pretty stupid) and I bet a lot of people would have to work a bit to put together a varied playlist of only instrumental music (that aren’t soundtracks!), so let me delve a bit into the backstory, and maybe it’ll make some more sense. Maybe you’ll also learn of some new music you might like! Instrumental stuff is pretty cool, ya’ll.

Trailer Music

Most people remember the moment when they first discovered new music by themselves. Not something their parents showed them, not even something their friends showed them, but something that felt truly like their own. If it hasn’t already been shaped beforehand, this is where our taste starts being defined.
For me, that first moment was a World of Warcraft Machinima.
Remember that word? Machinima? If you don’t, I don’t blame ya, feels like that up and vanished—maybe I just lost touch. Anyways, “machinima” is a term for movies made inside video games, and the very best one back then was “Tales of the Past”.
That was the shit to 6th-grader me. I doubt anyone else saw them because of the whole machinima thing, but they were essentially a trilogy of increasingly well-produced, fan-made epic fantasy stories, that just happened to be filmed inside a video game.
Damn, might write a blog about those movies one day… I doubt they’re worth watching today, but back then I watched those movies so many times

This bloody movie. The first two are pretty rough (they even were back then), but the third one (this one) is genuinely well-made and probably holds up as a cheesy action fantasy adventure, if a taad over-the-top. It's still a fan-movie.

What these movies introduced me to was a genre of music that I hadn’t considered that you could listen to by itself until then: Trailer Music.
Sometimes also called orchestral music, and not to be confused with classical, it’s orchestral movie music. Think of any music that’s played (or was played in the 90’s-early 2000’s) in a trailer to a big-budget movie, and you’ll know what kind of thing I’m talking about—hence the name “Trailer Music”.
Yep, that was my jam back in elementary school. Stuff like Immediate Music ] and X-ray Dog, soundtracks to various movies like National Treasure [!] and, of course, Requiem For A Tower (which I still unironically like despite how it got completely shredded. Also, have you actually ever listened to the full version of this song? Or the equally rad original version).

And all of this came as a very direct result of me watching those movies. My playlists back then could largely be described as “the songs used in Tales of the Past ”—I owe a lot to those silly fan-movies.
Today you might know stuff like Two Steps From Hell, but they got big a little after my time (lol).
This started my continued (and continuing) listening to soundtracks to movies. I still regularly listen to the soundtracks of movies I watch and games I play, and I love soundtracks today.

The Indie Rock Phase

Heh, that title is a bit of a joke. It would more accurately be described as "that time I listened to Sun Kil Moon" a lot.
See, in the trailer for Gears of War 3 has this song in it called “Heron Blue”, which was my second big paradigm shift (beginning my long tradition of discovering music because of video game trailers that still happens today in fact! I discovered Zoe Keating in this trailer).

Really, it's a rehash of what they did with "Mad World" back for GoW 1. But what can I say, I like this song better!

It’s quite the tempo-shift from my previous stuff, as you can hear, but I loved the tone and atmosphere of this song, and listened to Sun Kil Moon’s entire library because of it.

But gasp! It has lyrics! Blasphemy! Hypocrisy! …yeah. It has lyrics.
I actually even like the lyrics in the final bit about violins; I ain’t even gonna look it up because I don’t think I ever bothered to look up the full readout of the lyrics for it.
Which is another thing I still do: I actively choose to sing wrong lyrics and never look up the proper lyrics for a song, in fear of being disappointed or just because I don’t care what the proper lyrics are—they mean nothing to me.
I have listened to that song probably over a hundred times and I still don’t know what it’s about (lyrically). But I love it nonetheless.
And most of my other favorite songs from Sun Kil Moon were instrumental or very light on lyrics, and I wasn’t a huge fan of their later stuff that became a bit more singer-songwriter-y.

The rest of this phase (which was around early high school) was a bit eclectic, still stuck in a lot of soundtracks (Terran 4!), but slowly experimenting a bit with some more electronic stuff (Frozen Synapse soundtrack, anyone?) or some rock (like Magtens Korridorer (Danish thing)), but I was still struggling to find anything I like in established genres.

Terran 4!!! This song was never actually published in this version and is only played like this in the game. But it is by far, the best version. No question.

Then Kashiwa Daisuke Happened

Which shook my world. I already wrote about this event here, so read that if you want details. But safe to say that Kashiwa Daisuke defined something for me I had never heard before and identified for me what I liked in music. It wasn’t electronic, it wasn’t orchestral. It wasn’t lyrical, it wasn’t classical, it wasn’t structured—it was all of those things.
Now, the problem was that there wasn’t a whole lot of things like Kashiwa Daisuke in the world. At least not immediately, and it was hard to find. Still today, I struggle to find anything I’d consider “Daisuke-esque” (I made up a term for it. Yeah, I’m that guy).

I've linked Stella enough for now. Let's give another one of his best a shot too.

But this phase was when I started to discover my taste making some circles. For example, I liked the band song from the Machinarium soundtrack a whole lot, which is made by Tomáš Dvořák or “Floex”.
And then, some time later, I discovered Hidden Orchestra, which had a remix made of their song “Dust” made by… Floex! Suddenly, I saw this thing I found through two completely different channels (video game soundtracks vs instrumental music blogs) loop back on itself. That was the first time I noticed I had a taste in music that wasn’t an eclectic mess.

But back to the topic at hand: Lyrics.
I was beginning to find instrumental music that wasn’t soundtracks but dedicated instrumental music and that was incredibly rewarding for me: I discovered there were songs out there created purely as songs that their creators didn’t feel needed lyrics. Things like Hidden Orchestra or Balmorhea or, a little later Blue Sky Black Death (!!!), but I’d still wager I listened to 60% soundtracks (I make it sound like a bad thing… xD)
Somewhere along this I realized another part of why I didn’t care much for lyrics: They made the songs formulaic. To listen to the lyrics, you need the lyrics to… be listenable.
Most songs with lyrics follow the standard ABABCB-structure, and even the ones that don’t still need a structure since they, well, have to sing in verse. And even if they don’t, they need room from the instruments to allow the lyrics to be in the centre—if you can’t hear the lyrics clearly, why are they there?
And I always found that a little flat. I don’t listen to music to listen to words. So, if half the instruments go away for me to hear the words, I immediately pay less attention.
I always felt sad when the lyrics started. I wanted to hear more of the intros, or the C-parts, or the parts of the choruses where they didn’t sing but let one of the instruments lead. Those parts of songs were the ones that I wanted more of, and instrumental songs gave me just that. And moreover, because they only had instruments, they allowed those instruments to change, move, and adjust, and become something other than tools to create sound.

If you listen to nothing else in this blog... sit back for 6 minutes with some good headphones and let this wash over you.

If you listen to a song like Stella (if you’ve got 30 minutes) or Sleeping Children Are Still Flying, no two minutes are alike. Those songs (and a lot I like) changes continually throughout its entire runtime, and that just was far more interesting to me. I wanted the song itself to be a story, and not just a backdrop for someone to tell me a story.
That might seem weird to say that an instrumental song tells a story, but I honestly believe songs like Stella or Sleeping Children Are Still Flying do tell stories—they’re just non-verbal, abstract, emotional, instead of typical stories. But to me, they’re far better for it.

So that was why I despised lyrics. They were the parts of songs I liked the least. I felt they destroyed many good songs that didn’t need them. They removed the focus away from what I liked about music, onto something I found largely uninteresting.

Well, I Was Dumb, Wasn’t I?

Today… I will admit that’s a pretty dumb opinion.
I still don’t like most lyrics, but hating lyrics in general just doesn’t make sense. My music change has changed a lot too, since then. Now I’m listening to a lot of electronic stuff too. I will, no hesitation, say I like some Deadmau5 songs now! That I sure never expected. But with stuff like The Glitch Mob, Porter Robinson, Danger, ODESZA, Solar Fields, Flume, etc. in my life I absolutely love a lot of electronic music—so much so that it’s probably my default genre now (although “electronic” is not a genre yada-yada…). But you know what the common thread through most of those mentions are? Few lyrics—or for the ones that do use lyrics sometimes, it’s often the songs that don’t I like the most.
But I have sort of come around. There are definitely several songs I like a lot that have lyrics in them—and even some where I like the lyrics themselves, be it in some soul-y hip-hop, Flume (when he’s weird) or when I indulge into my pop-ier side.


Although, another thing all of those have in common is that they have voice in them. Because voice, I realized, does not have to form lyrics. Or at least not lyrics I can understand. (Because that’s really the difference: Lyrics that I understand.) It’s the recognition into legible language that gets me. Listen to this song.
It has vocals, but nothing you’d recognize as language. Or the countless other examples of modern electronica using chopped, split, distorted, or otherwise manipulated voice, so it becomes unrecognizable as language. (like this. not the greatest song, but damn if it doesn't show it well.)
It is voice used as instrument. Of course I like it. The voice is no more than an instrument and no less, indeed. (This is also why I like some stuff in foreign languages, because the lyrics, for me, act as sound: They’re meaningless. Like fx. Eivør, Hol Baumann, Wednesday Campanella etc.)
The sounds of words are appealing to me. I’m a writer, I like how words sound. I like listening to voice. But I don’t want to think about words when I’m listening to music—as contradictory as that sounds. I want music to be space. I want it to surround me, to envelop and entrap me. I want it to become a world. Lyrics I understand snap me right out of that and instead make me listen to the sentences.
I thought once that lyrics themselves made that impossible, but what it is, is how lyrics are used, because it is an instrument to me. By allowing the song to instead be an instrument, the progression of the song comes not as a consequence of language, but as a natural occurrence in the change of sound. The space is the music. The story is the music—it isn’t a deliverer, it isn’t a carrier, it is itself why we stay.

Finally, Some Thoughts

This reluctance to hear lyrics throughout my formative years has given me a strange relationship with music compared to most other people. A lot of music that people take for granted as stuff-people-have-listened-to, like a lot of classic rock, like a lot of pop (new, but especially old), or a lot of stuff people expect you’d be able to sing along to or know the name of… I have no clue.

I’ve never really listened to a David Bowie song.
I’ve never really listened to a Prince song.
I’ve never really listened to a Madonna song.
I’ve never really listened to an Elvis song.
I've only ever listened to like 2 Metal songs (the genre. Yes.)
(when I say “never really listened” I mean listen in its entirety off my own volition or with the intent of listening to it)

This doesn’t really matter too much; I’m totally fine with not having heard it. I know it's not really as big a deal as I make it out to be. But it does occasionally cause some moments where I feel like I live on another planet.
It’s alright, though. I have music over here. You’re welcome to come listen, if you want.
No talking, though. Sounds are ok.
I will sing the lyrics wrong on purpose. You have been warned.

(Oh yeah, footnote: Me and my parents discussed the use of “songs” in this context: Are instrumental pieces of music also “songs?” I say yes, but they say no. It might be a linguistical oddity that’s changed from my generation to theirs, but am a bit curious; what would you say?)