WHEN THE WORDS & MUSIC GET TOGETHER 7-1-17
Which comes first, the melody or the lyrics, the music or the words?
It’s hard for me, and for most folks, to listen to a song like “Stardust” and hear only the music or the lyrics. They fit together so perfectly. But they did not start out together. Hoagy Carmichael composed the music in 1927. The lyrics were added by Mitchell Parish in 1929. As a writer, I am in awe of a poet who can take someone else’s music and put words to it.
Hoagy did the lyrics for very few of his songs. Johnny Mercer struggled for a year to come up with the lyrics for Hoagy’s “Skylark.” What a job he did. They fit so perfectly. You’d swear they had been conceived together.
It works the other way around, too. Oscar Hammerstein II would work for months on the lyrics of a song, to get them to fit just right into the story of a Broadway musical. Then he would give them to Richard Rodgers and walk home, just a few blocks. When he got there, the phone would be ringing, and Rodgers would play for him the music he had already composed to fit Hammerstein’s lyrics, tunes like “Oh, What a Wonderful Morning” and “Old Man River.” How does someone do that?
Jerry Herman was often asked which came first, the melody or the lyrics. He said for him they always came together. I can understand that. It’s hard to conceive of “Hello, Dolly” or “Mame” without words and music together.
My great late friend, George Paterson, was a trombonist in addition to being a professor of pastoral care and chaplain at the University of Iowa hospitals. He did a lot of jazz worship services. That meant playing traditional hymns in jazz style. He was a master at it. He also composed music. He once asked me to put words to one of his compositions. He meant the piece to be an affirmation of faith. One of my few regrets is that I never did that. I couldn’t. I could not get my word brain to sync with George’s music brain. Everything I came up with was too trite. It would have dishonored George to put cliché words to his music.
The late Anthony Berger, the amazing pianist for the Gaither Homecoming concerts, said that he was taught to play the words, not the music. I think that’s a good thing for anyone who plays for worship to consider.
There is, of course, a lot of great music, including worship music, that has no words. Anyone can profit from Beethoven’s 9th or Bach’s “That Sheep May Safely Graze” without knowing or hearing words. And you can profit from Myra Brooks Welch’s “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” or Shelley’s “Ozymandias” without requiring music.
So, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Music and words are both gifts from God. Let us enjoy each for what it is. But there is always something special when two or more of the gifts of God come together.