THE ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL LYRIC
One question about song-writing is often asked but will never be settled: Which is more important, the music or the words? Among the publishers with whom I have discussed this question is Louis Bernstein, of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. He summed up what all the other publishers and song-writers I have known have said:
“A great melody may carry a poor lyric to success, and a great lyric may carry a poor melody; but for a song to become widely popular you must have both a great melody and a great lyric.”
This is but another way of stating the fact noted in the preceding chapter, that the words and music of a popular song-hit are indivisible. And yet Mr. Bernstein gives an authoritative reply to the question with which this chapter opens.
Charles K. Harris put it in another way. Referring particularly to the ballad—and to the particular style of ballad that has made him famous—he said:
“The way to the whistling lips is always through the heart. Reach the heart through your lyrics, and the lips will whistle the emotion via the melody. When the heart has not been touched by the lyric, the lips will prove rebellious. They may, indeed, whistle the melody once, even twice, but it takes more than that to make a song truly popular. A catchy tune is not sufficient in itself. It goes far, it is true, but it will not go the entire distance of popularity, or even two-thirds of the distance, unless it is accompanied by a catchy lyric.”
You may read into this a leaning toward the lyric, if you like. And it might be better if you did, for you would then realize that your part of a popular song must be as “great” as you can make it. But whatever may be your opinion, it does not alter the fact that both Mr. Harris and Mr. Bernstein have pointed out—catchy words are needed as much as catchy melody. And permit me to say very humbly that personally I have no leaning toward the musical one of the twins: my reason for discussing first the musical elements, is that a lyric writer often is called on to fit words to music, and because an understanding of the musical elements forms a fine foundation for an easy, and therefore a quick, dissection of the popular song—that is all.
In its original meaning, a lyric is verse designed to be sung to the accompaniment of music. Nowadays lyrical poetry is verse in which the poet’s personal emotions are strongly shown. Popular song-lyrics especially are not only designed to be sung, but are verses that show a great deal of emotion—any kind of emotion. But remember this point: Whatever and how great soever may be the emotion striving for expression, the words designed to convey it do not become lyrics until the emotion is shown, and shown in a sort of verse which we shall presently examine. If you convey emotion, your words may be worth thousands of dollars. If you fail to convey it, they will be only a sad joke.