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When I was teaching freshman theory, I’d ask my students to bring in recordings of music they liked. Always my favorite part of the class. I’d ask what was going on in the music, what was making the emotion happen. And for the first few days of the year, they’d almost always say the same thing.

It’s the words, they’d say. The lyrics make it sad or angry or happy. It’s those words.

Yeah, it’s not the words. Mostly not, anyway.

I adore great lyrics. I can rattle off a dozen songs with lyrics that move me deeply — but they’re rarely the primary engine driving the emotion. Take the most heartbreaking song you know. Keep the lyrics the same, put polka music under them, and watch what happens to the emotion.

Now go the other way — keep the music the same and change the lyrics to la la la. In most cases, it’ll still break your heart.

Here are some dark, nihilistic lyrics for you:

I’m getting bored being part of mankind
There’s not a lot to do no more
This race is a waste of time
People rushing everywhere, swarming ’round like flies
Think I’ll buy a .44
Give ’em all a surprise

Think I’m gonna kill myself

Now watch Elton John mess with you:

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Lyrics are emotional icing. The actual music, especially the harmony, is the cake. The next few posts will explore why and how.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.