The Four Right Chords

And the four right chords can make me cry

-Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”

Music is something I’ve thought a lot about, ever since seventh grade or so, when I discovered a radio station I liked (one that played something newer than the Beatles). I remember buying one or two albums because I’d heard a good song on the radio, but it turned out that’s all it was – one good song and twelve mediocre ones. Then, early in high school, a good friend introduced me to punk music, and I fell in love. The albums were consistent; there was a recognizable sound, and I liked it. I could learn its patterns and rhythms and it quickly became familiar.

I remember also walking into my first show at The Living Room, a small all-ages club where bands on their way from LA to San Francisco would stop and play. A local high school band was playing the first time I went. The room was entirely dark, with scuffed linoleum floors, walls painted black, dingy couches around the perimeter. The stage was small and lit with blue twinkle lights, and the sound – it sounded like a car crash. My friend had forgotten to bring the ear plugs she’d promised, but I could deal with ringing ears later: here was a roomful of people, silent, dark, nodding, occasionally shifting from foot to foot but mostly still. I thought, Yes.

Music is important even for us non-musicians, “professional appreciators” as Nick Hornby’s Rob in High Fidelity would have it. Hornby must be responsible for starting hundreds, possibly thousands, of conversations about music, and my own most focused thought on the subject tends to follow the reading of one of his books. I read his essay collection Songbook back in January, and it got me thinking, specifically about music and lyrics. What follows here I started writing in February – my attempt to hash out my thoughts about music and words. It got to be a bit sprawling, but today being the birthday of the person who got me into this mess in the first place, now’s the time. So, with thanks to Cat (for the music) and Cait and Ben (for editing, and more music)…


“Music is such a pure form of self-expression, and lyrics, because they consist of words, are so impure…Words will always let you down,” writes Nick Hornby in Songbook. I generally agree with Hornby, but not this time; I can’t. “Words will always let you down”? For me,  words – lyrics – are nearly always the way in which I enter a song, my access point. Only after memorizing the lyrics will I turn my attention to guitar, drums, bass, and begin to listen for anything out of the ordinary – a keyboard or a trumpet or an electric violin.

There are bands I never would have listened to if not for their lyrics; AFI is the first one that comes to mind. I spent hours in high school squinting at the tiny print in liner notes, struggling against the tide of horrible grammatical errors in all caps (Did anyone consider copy-editing these? I wondered), to understand what Davy Havok was screaming. When I got a new album, I listened to it once all the way though while following along with the lyrics in the liner notes, to catch every word. Because I  listened to punk rock almost exclusively, it became easier and easier to decode a new song by ear. What was noise at first resolved itself into discrete sounds and words.

The musicians I know hear the parts of a song in the reverse order that I do; a guitar player and I can listen to the same song for the first time and hear completely different things. They hear what’s going on in the music itself first, and lyrics come second, if at all. But lyrics are, at their best, poetry, and to miss the words to songs like “Joey” by Staring Back or “Crush” by Jimmy Eat World or “Of Greetings and Goodbyes” by AFI, or a whole slew of others…if you’re only listening to the music, you aren’t getting the full value of the song. [See below for lyrics]

This is not to say that I will listen to a song that has brilliant lyrics even if the music is terrible; the music is what carries the words, and that’s important too. I’m more likely, in fact, to listen to a song that is great musically but has sub-par lyrics than the other way around. There are times I’ve seen the lyrics before hearing the song – “Ambulance” by TV On The Radio, for example – and been disappointed when I heard it all together. And there are songs whose lyrics are silly without being clever, or just bland or trite, but the music is so good you can’t help getting into it. Good music can save bad lyrics, but good lyrics won’t make me listen to a bad song over and over. A friend of mine’s standards for lyrics are thus: “Something I won’t feel too embarrassed to sing along to at the top of my lungs.” (This particular friend does everything at the top of his lungs. I bet his kindergarten teacher went through hell trying to get him to use an “indoor voice.”)

However, even though I notice lyrics first, I don’t discount all the rest just because I can’t analyze it the same way. The words are just what grab my attention first – like people having a loud conversation at the next table, I can’t help hearing them. I agree with Hornby when he writes, “There is something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out.” Words aren’t everything, and even if I don’t know what it is about a chord change that makes me feel sorrow or exultation, it acts on me; as Hornby writes, “The best music connects to the soul, not the brain.”

There is so much music that I enjoy listening to, and most of it doesn’t have top-notch music and brilliant lyrics; it doesn’t connect to the soul OR the brain (not meaningfully, anyway. But then, you can’t eat chocolate cake all day long.) The best songs, though, are the ones that have both, equally matched, supporting each other. These are the ones I come back to again and again, the ones that I’ve been listening to for years, or the new ones that are immediately arresting, instantly compelling. “The ones with the magic,” as Robert Mapplethorpe would say; Roland Barthes would use the Latin word Punctum, for the detail that wounds.

In Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy writes, “Music is what language once aspired to be.” Nick Hornby quotes English writer and critic Walter Pater’s almost identical phrasing of a similar sentiment stated more broadly: “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” Maybe all of this aspiration to express what is, ultimately, inexpressible – a nameless, sourceless yearning – is more perfectly rendered in pure sound. Though in my experience, a line in a poem or a passage in a book can go as deeply and as swiftly to the core as music can, there are also times when, finally, you reach the limit of language, and you can only point wordlessly and say, Look. Listen. As Rumi writes, “I can’t stop pointing to the beauty.”


One of the most oft-quoted and best-known lines from High Fidelity is when Rob muses to himself, “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to music?” There is a tendency, when we are sad, to listen to sad music. Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to happy music, to try to change our mood? But what we want, I think, is something with which we can empathize, which empathizes with us – having someone “articulate your sadness for you,” as my no-indoor-voice friend put it, can be calming and healing. It is a little bit like fighting fire with fire, matching sadness to sadness; what you’re feeling now, someone else has felt before, and that is comforting. We self-medicate with music; the analogy I have used ever since I started using headphones is that of an IV drip (minus the unpleasantness of the needle). Sound flows into us, and we are soothed.

Where does the power of music come from? Why do we listen to the same songs over and over again, and why do we foist them upon our friends, insisting that they listen, hoping that they hear what we hear and feel what we feel? It’s as if moods have their own frequencies, and songs have frequencies too, and if we hear the right song at the right time, the wavelengths synchronize and everything resonates. (Apologies to any scientists reading this.) The power comes from that resonance. We want to express ourselves, and we want to be understood. Music helps us with these twin needs, whether it’s a lyric that articulates what we’ve been trying to say, or a chord change that resonates.

It’s no coincidence that I “discovered” music when I did; teenagers are perennially striving to express themselves and be understood. Music is a means to both of these ends. It is more expressive, private, and meaningful than, for example, what you wear, and it is far more enduring (though I do still have clothes from high school). That first show at The Living Room was, if I’m not mistaken, exactly ten years ago today. It would be overly dramatic to say I wouldn’t have made it through the last decade without music, but it would have been a lot harder, less fun, and more colorless. So, to the bands for the music, and to friends for the recommendations, I’ll echo the Descendents – thank you.

“So don’t forget the songs that made you cry
And the songs that saved your life…” -The Smiths, “Rubber Ring”

Happy listening.



From “Of Greetings and Goodbyes,” AFI:

…Enter all the monsters, let us twist another fairy tale…

“Joey,” Staring Back:

If now’s the time to get it right, it won’t be over
I won’t get over this
I thought about what I did (what I did)
The air is colder than your shoulder, it won’t be over
until you’re through with it
Times have changed, but I haven’t
I wonder what you’d say
if I was never in your way
Without you to occupy my mind
and I’ve wasted all my time
I know what’s right, it’s untouchable like
You know I’m right
I’m the shadow in your light

“Crush,” Jimmy Eat World:

Faintest snow keep falling. Hands around your waist. Nameless, standing cold. Take in restraint like a breath. My lungs are so numb from holding back. Walk close to the fence, feel it hit clothes. Turn and smile nice. Smile, say goodnight. Say goodnight in a breath. Simple discourse breaks you clean in half. Regret. Do try it once but then you know. It’s your move. Settle for less again.

“Thank You,” the Descendents:

I listen to you for hours, I’ll listen all day
Just keep hitting me the right way
Sing your song in the shower
Cause you got a way
To say what I can never say right – right on
When I feel weak you make me feel strong
Make me feel strong

I won’t say your name
But you know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say
Thank you for playing the way you play

You don’t get played on the radio
That’s not the game you play
Well I don’t care anyway
I glued your tape in the stereo
So I know every word, every note
And every chord is right – right on
When I feel weak you make me feel strong
Make me feel strong feel like nothing’s wrong

I won’t say your name
You know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say thank you for playing the
Way you play

Did you know you’re why I go
And waste my time
At a rock and roll show
You let me know I’m not alone
You make me feel strong, make me feel strong,
Feel like nothing’s wrong

I won’t say your name, you know who you are
I’ll never be the same again now – no way
I just want to say
Thank you for playing the way you play

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