When I was wandering around Reddit, I found that many critiques really were not helpful to the writer because the critic failed to understand the type of lyrics the songwriter was going for. My thinking is that lyrics generally fall into three types: Narrative, Lyrical, and Instrumental. Here are my thoughts and some examples of each.
Narrative lyrics , kind of obviously, focus on a narrative. They tell a story. Usually, we see characters and a setting and some event or events unfold. A few good examples are Pancho and Lefty by Townes Van Zandt and The Blizzard by Harlan Howard (performed by Jim Reeves). Those are clear examples of a story in song form.
Lyrical lyrics , (I know, it sounds funny) focus on the conveying of an emotion. The narrative, if any, is secondary to the emotion conveyed. A few good examples are Spoon by Dave Matthews Band (you could argue that there is a narrative, but it really appears that the central idea of the song is silent contemplation) and Happy by Pharrell Williams (I know, that one is really obvious). The narrative (if any) of either song is not the primary focal point of the song. What matters is that the listener feels something.
Instrumental lyrics are lyrics where the voice is simply an additional instrument. Sometimes the words are utter nonsense, and sometimes they aren’t words at all. Rubber Biscuit performed by The Chips (songwriter is iffy due to label). But basically, you have a few one line jokes and scat. Those jokes could really be replaced by almost anything else and the song remains about the same. Sarah Vaughan’s Shulie-A-Bop is an example of straight scat. For one that uses real words, listen to almost any song by Phish, but Stash is a good example. The lyrics are straight nonsense but enhance the music.
Many songs use elements from all three styles. For instance, in pop music you often hear an “oooh” vocal run, or a meaningless “baby”, or “boy” or “girl”, that is instrumental. The band Thursday has a song called “War All the Time” that is primarily lyrical, but goes into narrative (in this case, it is very clear, the story begins “I was five years old when my best friend’s older brother died…”). Learning when and how to use the three types of lyrics can enhance your songs. It also helps when collaborating. That way, the co-writers can better relay what their intent is with certain lines or the whole song.
Do you have any examples of these types of lyrics? Do you find it useful to have these types of terms to communicate?