Any songwriter knows that a song won’t succeed without well-written music and perfectly crafted lyrics. But the interaction between music and lyrics in a song raises two questions. The first is which is more important and the second is which should be written first. The second question isn’t really a problem though; as it is simply a matter of personal preference and habit. The question that really needs answering is, in fact, the first one: “What is more important?”
To answer this question, we have to examine the audience’s perception of the songs. Songs are written for people to listen to; therefore, how they identify with the songs is more relevant and crucial to the songwriting process. A good songwriter must screen his audience beforehand and accordingly shape the song so that it is as easily conceived by his target audience as possible.
As I belong to Western music by education (classical music) and Eastern music by birth (being from Egypt), I have examined – as deeply as I could – the perception of songs by both Arab and European listeners. My conclusion is that those two different cultures produced people with very different prejudices.
Arab culture and heritage are largely based on poetry, while music remains trivial. Consequently, for Arab listeners, the lyrics come first and the music is reduced to a melodic for the lyrics with as few arrangements as possible. Lyrics come first for Arab listeners!
On the other hand, Europe’s musical heritage is huge, with many great composers who will always be remembered. At the same time, the great poets of Europe used the kind of language that today needs a lot of simplification to understand. The music reaches the European listener before the words!
So does this mean that one can write “bad” lyrics for European listeners and get away with it? Of course, no!! They eventually catch up. Also, Arab listeners will not listen to a song with bad music. The idea is that if your audience cares less about the lyrics, they won’t “appreciate” a complex lyric. In fact, they would not understand it and would label it as “bad”. It has to be “good” but not “complex”.
It’s about complexity. Arabic listeners will be put at ease with a nice melody that fits well with the lyrics. It has to be nice, but it CANNOT be complex! My mother thinks Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” is “louder” than music should be. I think she meant: “too complicated for music”. On the contrary, European listeners will not settle for a good melody, you have to have strong chord progressions, a powerful base and a strong drum line.
So, I write more complicated lyrics for Arab listeners and more complicated music for European listeners. Study YOUR OWN audience and see what they like and which way they’re biased, so you know how to adjust the complexity of your song. But beware; sometimes “less complicated” means “more difficult to write”… I wish you an easy composition!