Contemporary urban music: controversial messages in hip-hop and rap lyrics

Table of Content

Contemporary urban music: controversial messages in hip-hop and rap lyrics.

by Franklin B. Krohn , Frances L. Suazo

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront


Anyone who is unfamiliar with recent contemporary urban music is likely to be surprised at its unusual rhythms and perhaps even shocked at its uninhibited lyrics. Unless one is involved with urban teenagers or ghetto culture or watches MTV on cable, there is little likelihood of being exposed to such music. The purpose of this paper is to help familiarize the uninitiated with some of these newer forms of music which have become so controversial.

When hip-hop music became popular in the early ’70s, most people responded only to the music (Sims, 1993, p. E3). More recently, the term “hip-hop” describes a culture, superficially characterized by performers with droopy pants, hats to the back, laceless sneakers, hoods, and loud radios. “Hip-hop [is] an African-American and Afro-Caribbean youth culture composed of graffiti, break dancing and rap music” (Rose, 1994, p. 2). As Garofalo (1990) points out, “rap music must be understood as one cultural element within a larger social movement known as hip-hop.” It’s a culture born out of a mixture of cultures with its own language.

“Hip-hop is the fundamental matrix of self-expression for this whole generation” (Katz & Smith, 1993). But the superficial characteristics which are deemed minimally acceptable to mainstream society can be deceiving. Often the words reflect the frustration over poverty, drugs, violence, poor schools, family breakdown and racial tension (Leland, 1992, p. 52). The victims have become victimizers in the way that they communicate the events and emotions of inner city people. Hip-hop, then, is another form of musical expression that has included rhythm and blues (R&B), rap or urban style, dance, new jack swing, reggae or ska. All may serve as a protest of racism and poverty. According to Rose, [rap music is]:

…the central cultural vehicle for open social reflection on poverty, fear of adulthood, the desire for absent fathers, frustrations about black male sexism, female sexual desires, daily rituals of life as an unemployed teen hustler, safe sex, raw anger, violence, and childhood memories. It is also the home of innovative uses of style and language, hilariously funny carnivalesque and chitlin-circuit-inspired dramatic skits, and ribald storytelling. In short, it is black America’s most dynamic contemporary popular cultural intellectual and spiritual vessel. (Rose, 1994, p. 18)

Rap music also demeans women and promotes drug use and violence as a way to achieve empowerment through symbolic verbal action. The negative implications of rap music have become as popular as the music itself. It has attacked racism through more racism, lack of power through supremacy and perhaps poverty through the sales of racist and misogynist material to those willing to be entertained and influenced in their desire for information about ghetto culture – those who take the easy stand of observing rather than participating. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University:

A lot of what you see in rap is the guilt of the black middle class about its economic success, its inability to put forth a culture of its own. Instead they do the worst possible thing, falling back on fantasies of street life. In turn, white college students with impeccable gender credentials buy nasty sex lyrics under the cover of getting at some kind of authentic black experience. What is potentially very dangerous about this is the feeling that by buying records they have made some kind of valid social commitment.

This kind of consumption – of racist stereotypes, of brutality toward women, or even of uplifting tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King – is of a particularly corrupting kind. The values it instills find their ultimate expression in the ease with which we watch young black men killing each other: in movies, on records, and on the streets of dries and towns across the country. (Samuels, 1991, p. 29)

Rap is a musical expression characterized by continuous beats looped to produce a steady rhythm and overlapped by sentences which are recited rapidly but in cadence with the music.

Rap’s various musical beats contribute to differentiation in styles. “Hip-hop may sound the same to the inexperienced ear, but beneath the posturing and booming beat lies one of pop’s most complex forms” (Toure, 1993, p. H32). The looping of beats, which consists of recording the same musical line over and over again may seem monotonous if only one line (for example, the bass line) accompanies the lyrics. Nevertheless, various instrumental lines are layered diversifying what is heard. Also, rap recalls the African tradition of story-telling – “it’s a form of rhyme accompanied by highly rhythmic, electronically based music” (Rose, 1994, p. 2). Its historical authenticity is established by the use of the popular slave and church tradition of call-and-response, where the lead singer asks a question or requests interactive participation from followers or peers.

The “chants” may be abrupt and therefore sound inconsistent to a new listener, because many times it seems as if the song has ended for a few seconds, but then it rapidly returns to the previous musical line. Also, its complexity is intensified by the use of sound effects adding realism to the statements expressed.

Those who are unfamiliar with these new forms of musical expression may use dictionary definitions as their starting point although semanticists recognize that music as much as words is interpreted differently by different people. Surprisingly, the dictionary definitions of rap relate to the musical expression itself, although none defines the style specifically. “A sharp rebuke or criticism; slang: the responsibility of or adverse consequences of an action; a criminal charge; a prison sentence.” Also to rap is “to talk freely or frankly; a tall conversation” (Webster’s, 1991, p. 975). The music itself is a cultural expression which “prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America” (Rose, 1994, p. 2).

Rappers are criticizing what they believe to be an unfair society, and the majority of them have had problems with the law, giving the style a nefarious reputation among some listeners (Sims, 1993, p. E3). Conversely, many teenagers and minority group members view rappers as their spokesmen because of their ability to speak in street language and bluntly express their frustrations. That street language usually depicts the least socially desirable elements of urban life including misogyny, illegal drugs, and violence.


Gender equality is hindered by a sexist society and rappers contribute to this abuse. Often these artists refer to their partners as “bitches” and “whores” and they appear to take pride in describing their abuse of power in sexual situations. Dr. Dre’s most popular song “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” is a misogynistic anthem. Snoop Doggy Dogg raps the first few verses of the song:/…before you hit on a bitch you have to find a contraceptive//you never know she could be learning her man/…/and at the same time burning her man/…(Dr. Dre, 1992).

Sexually explicit titles are also frequent in Dr. Dre’s music, for example, his song “Let Me Ride,” is meant to have double entendre: “ride” is also a slang term for coitus or a sexual encounter. Also, Dr. Dre was the producer for Snoop Doggy Dogg’s album entitled Doggystyle. In the album’s intro, one of Snoop’s friends refers to him “doing his gift doggystyle” – that is in the “rear entry” position (Snoop Doggy Dogg, 1993). Double entendre is also obvious in K7’s song “Come Baby Come,” with a chorus line saying I come baby come, baby baby, come come …if I gotta’ give you loving then you gotta’ give me some…/(K7, 1993).

Some of the representative lyrics associated with Dr. Dre’s former group N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude) are as follows:/This is the bitch that did the whole crew/She did it so much we made bets on who the ho would love to go through…/And she lets you videotape her/And if you got a gang of niggers the bitch’ll let you rape her/(N.W.A, 1990). These lyrics are derogatory sexual innuendoes viewed by many as promoting gang rape. The following may also be considered misogynist lyrics, from the song “One Less Bitch”:/In reality a fool is one who believes all women are ladies; a nigga is one who believes all ladies are bitches/./And all bitches are created equal/./To me all bitches are the same, money hungry scandalous, groupie hos, that’s always riding on nigga’s dick/, always in a nigga’s pocket/…(N.W.A., 1991).

The overwhelming majority of rappers are African Americans and most white people would be surprised to find the hated word “nigger” used so freely. However, words that might be inappropriate for outsiders to use are commonly employed by those within a group. So too with the word “bitch,” commonly considered a pejorative word, which is sometimes used to mean “a woman who gets what she wants.” Street language does not always conform to majority group use or meaning (Condon, 1966).

Contemporary rap surpasses acceptable limits to conservative listeners. The controversy may never get worse than the one connected to rap group 2 Live Crew. Their obscenity court case is famous because it centered the group in a vortex of powerful social and cultural issues such as First Amendment rights to free expression, the force and extent of misogynist and cultural impulses, and the function of race in judging controversial artistic expressions (Dyson, 1992, p. 274).

In addition to misogynist feelings and attitudes expressed in rap music, drugs also seem to be a major theme where the artist praises its illegal consumption and makes public its effects.


Rappers seem to take pride in their illegal drug consumption. Many rappers have a history of drug dealing or abuse. Recently, Latino rap newcomers Cypress Hill became the official spokesmen for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a group attempting to legalize marijuana (Ehrlich, 1993). Their new album Black Sunday gives a detailed explanation on the cover of the benefits of hemp, contrasting this with pictures of skulls and tombstones, which adds to its titillating aura. Also, track number nine on this album openly expresses “Legalize it” (Cypress Hill, 1993).

Dr. Dre appears to be promoting drugs by calling his album “The Chronic,” with an icon of a marijuana leaf omnipresent in all of his videos. He challenges the boundaries set by networks such as MTV by shooting scenes which he knows will be censored. The Chronic is mildly but deliberately blurred on every video, creating further controversy. “Snoop Doggy Dogg can’t be shown wearing a cap with a marijuana leaf on it, while Tori Amos’s ‘God’ video shows a man with a cord around his arm in a reference to both Judaism and shooting heroin” (Weisbard, 1994, p. 135). Some rappers, who may not be as popular as Dr. Dre because they are not usually on MTV or even played on the radio, get away with descriptive lyrics such as rapper Redman with his song “How to Roll a Blunt,” a checklist of directions (Redman, 1991).

Rap’s explicit lyrics are modified for public air play and many songs are not even played on the commercial level, but rap albums still manage to sell in great quantities (Rose, 1994, p. 4, 7). Some songs remain unknown to fans unless they decide to buy the whole album. Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High” is such a song, and is dominated by boxy beats and characterized by a boost in the bass with a repetitive melody. The resulting sound makes listeners feel as if the room is spinning and simulates being under the influence of drugs.

In addition to the disturbing misogyny and promotion of illegal drugs by rappers is the concern about the ultimate alleged consequence of gangster rap: violence.


A variety of social problems are conveyed in rap lyrics narrating daily events in cities, but which may be irrelevant to those who are not affected. “Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society” (Rose, 1994, p. 2). Through rap, the black voice has the opportunity to break the obstruction the media has provided for many years (Rose, 1994, p. 14) and nowadays African-Americans or minorities in general can symbolically release their built-up energy. “In great part, hip-hop’s pervasive popularity is due to its rebellious nature – set to a beat you can dance to” (Sims, 1993). Rap’s cathartic effect can be identified in its angry lyrics which target institutions such as the church, government and justice system. “Catharsis has a quasi-curative effect. It temporarily relieves the tension and may prepare the individual for a change of attitude” (Allport, 1954, p. 497). However, rappers may be reliving their own painful experiences over and over again through their music, delaying their own and society’s process of recovery (Wortman & Lotus, 1992, p. 479).

In 1989, two years before the Rodney King incident, N.W.A. wrote a song about the perceived relations between blacks and police officers. It was called “Fuck the Police.” The lyrics included/Some police think/they have the authority to kill the minority/taking out a police will make my day/(Leland, 1992, p. 52). The King beating was considered by many to be a tragic and outrageous event but rare. However, many blacks claim that there are numerous Rodney Kings whose pain and suffering no one shares or acknowledges.

“Gangster rap, which many of its aficionados see as validating the turbulent and deadly streets of an America denied, is the latest manifestation of hip-hop, which first washed over the country in the mid-70s” (Sims, 1993). The “gangsta” image may be becoming a role model to our youth, which is expressed lightly through their clothing but dangerously by carrying out what is expressed in rap songs.

According to MTV, the number one hip-hop song of all time is Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” “G” referring to gangster and money (grand). One of the famous lines of this piece is/if your bitches talk shit, I have to put the smack down/(Dr. Dre, 1992). He almost always refers to females as “bitches” and “whores,” as he rhymes on about his power and phallic self-praises (e.g. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang). Dr. Dre’s videos are unique because they are always set in group or house parties with the omnipresent “blurring” of hats and shirts probably the result of the depiction of the marijuana leaf as in The Chronic.

This gangsta’ attitude also contributes to stereotypical attitudes assumed by blacks and other minorities. According to California Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker, whose district embraces many black areas of Los Angeles, rappers preach drug culture and violence. Furthermore, according to Tucker, embracing that lifestyle may consequently encourage youngsters to emulate the rappers (Sims, 1993). Many have condemned rap music relating it directly to violence and drug use. According to Sims (1993), supporters of the genre say that it is attacked because society does not consider it a real art form and because it is dominated by blacks. Yet “The arrests of hip-hop artists on charges including sexual assault and murder have heightened concerns that some of these performers, particularly the stars of gangster rap, have become dangerous emblems for an immensely popular, primarily black, musical genre that celebrates violence, gangs, guns and sexual conquest” (Sims, 1993).

Rap lyrics convey a “gun-toting, weed fiend” side of the artists, some of who have criminal records (Sims, 1993).

Mentions of Dre in the Los Angeles Times, his hometown paper, tend to include the phrase “surrendered to police,” and perhaps he is the first recording artist since Sly Stone whose name shows up almost as often on the police report page as it does in the entertainment section. Much attention has been devoted to his thuggishness, relatively less to his artistry…. (Gold, 1993, p. 40)

Snoop Doggy Dogg, Flavor Flav, and Tupac Shakur are also noted for their frequent arrests.

The gangster attitude influences women as well as men; rapper Apache produced a song entitled “Gangsta’ Bitch”:/I need a gangsta’ bitch/I want a gangsta’ bitch/I need a gangsta’ bitch/she don’t sleep and she don’t play/stickin’ up girls from around the fuckin’ way/…/puffin’ on a blunt//sippin’ on a Heineken/…/on Valentine’s Day doin’ stickups together/(Apache, 1993). While the lyrics of “Gangsta Bitch” may be offensive to some, rap music listeners are unoffended by the words and may even attach some sentimentality to the theme of a man needing a female associate to smoke pot, drink beer, and to celebrate Valentine’s Day by committing crimes together.

Gangster rapper Dr. Dre has even taken the opportunity to use one of his songs as a death threat towards his reputed enemy, rapper Eazy-E. Dr. Dre made a video for the song “Dre Day,” including someone who looked like Eazy but instead calling him Sleazy and ridiculing him by holding a sign which read “Will rap for food,” in the closing shot of the video:/don’t even respect your ass, so now its time for the doctor to check your ass, nigga’/use to be my homie use to be my ace, now I wanna’ slap the taste out your mouth/…/don’t think I forgot, to let you slide, let me ride, just another homicide…/so strap on your Compton hat/and watch your back ’cause you might get smoked/(Dr. Dre, 1992).

Cypress Hills’ song “Pigs,” (which refers to the police) starts with a reporter’s voice saying: …”climbing out of both windows is a male Hispanic and a possible male Black. They have their vehicle parked..” and the music starts abruptly, ending with the sound of a police officer phoning and sending a signal. According to the group’s lead singer, B-Real, the song was inspired when a LAPD officer pushed him onto a parked car. He added that the cop did not get away with it because he was caught on videotape, the latest amateur trend (Leland, 1992, p. 52).

Rappers who employ sights and sounds of inner cities in their music may be viewed in at least two ways: (1) they provide release from the grinding tension created by poverty and substandard schooling and housing, or (2) they are promoting a subculture of acceptance and perhaps endorsement of antisocial and criminal behavior.


From one perspective rap has contributed to our society, benefiting minorities in their need for release and expression. Rappers are not simply making up stories with a rhythmic pattern; they are narrating what they see or have personally experienced as a way to make the world aware of their despair and anger. The attitude observed in the hip-hop culture combined with the clothing is intended to convey a “hard” outward appearance to achieve the respect which has been denied to minorities for many years. Rap is therefore the voice of the hip-hop culture. Frequently, rappers set the stage for their music videos in a jail, where they present what apparently many people in jail undergo, superficially of course, because the circumstances of the prison system are practically unknown to the average viewer. Rapper attire includes the wearing of droopy pants, which supposedly started in jail where inmates are not allowed to wear belts for security reasons.

Rap music is a confusing and noisy element of contemporary American popular culture that continues to draw a great deal of attention to itself. On the one hand, music and cultural critics praise rap’s role as an educational tool, point out that black women rappers are rare examples of aggressive pro-women lyricists in popular music, and defend rap’s ghetto stories as real-life reflections that should draw attention to the burning problems of racism and economic oppression, rather than to questions of obscenity. On the other hand, news media attention on rap seems fixated on instances of violence at rap concerts, rap producers’ illegal use of musical samples, gangsta raps’ lurid fantasies of cop killing and female dismemberment, and black nationalist rappers’ suggestions that white people are the devil’s disciples (Rose, 1994, p. 1).

The black power struggle has been strengthened through positive role models and activists for more than 25 years; nevertheless, the social hierarchy is still dominated by white males who are struggling to maintain that position. “Most people want to be higher on the status ladder than they are” (Allport, 1954, p. 371). Therefore, it is often found that when one group is not completely empowered but has a stronger or higher position in the hierarchy, they are likely to attack or oppress the ones under them. “Relationships are often strained between members of an in-group grown irritable over their handicapped status” (Allport, 1954, p. 371). Black women occupy the step under black males because they are the product of two handicaps: their gender and their race. According to Rose (1994, p. 15), the stories narrated in rap music “may serve to protect young men from the reality of female rejection; tales of sexual domination falsely relieve their lack of self-worth and limited access to economic and social markers for heterosexual masculine power.”

Many critics are likely to attribute the growing misogyny to rap music, when these feelings have prevailed for a number of years, intensifying through sexual harassment incidents and hindrance of power achievement by females. It must be noted that sexism was not born with rap music; it has been deeply rooted in American culture since its beginning (Rose, 1994, p. 15).

Many rappers have criticized their position in the mainstream music industry because to be “commercial” was unintended. Their music is aimed at those who are suffering from similar circumstances and are therefore able to relate. Many white suburban young people (who form a large percentage of consumers who buy rap albums) are unaware of the reality conveyed in rap lyrics. They probably enjoy the sound effects, beat, or what they may call “irrealism” because this reality does not relate to them or threaten their existence.

Nevertheless, rap music may cause violence among its own fans. Many may claim that the label of “violent” which has followed rap music for many years is comparable to jazz music’s label of “immoral,” based on white standards. Therefore political interpretations of rap’s explosive and resistive lyrics are critical to understanding contemporary black cultural politics (Rose, 1994, p. 145). Rap is not the only aspect of society that may induce criminal behavior. It is only part of a struggle over access to public space, community resources, and racism which provokes the violence.

Despite recognition of the effects of racism and discrimination, many critics believe that rappers have exceeded society’s license to entertain America’s youth. Religious leaders have decried what they consider the “Satanic” and obscene content of rap music. For instance, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie stated that “the vehicle of dissemination [for pornography on a massive scale to children] is ‘gangsta rap’ a type of music that is so filthy and vile that it far exceeds what even the most tolerant parent might accept as an inevitable result of the generation gap” (Yoffie, 1994, p. 88).

Rappers are viewed as role models by many youngsters who seem to identify with the underprivileged conditions depicted in many music videos where a familiar turf or hangout corner seems to provide the viewers with a whole story of despair which itself facilitates a connection between artist and viewer. Although to many listeners, rappers are just rebelling against the circumstances they were born in, according to Stanley Crouch, music critic and author of Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews 1979-1989, the performers have nothing to rebel against. “They are a bunch of opportunists who are appealing to an appetite that America has for vulgarity, violence and anarchy inside Afro America” (Sims, 1993).

Kevin Powell, writer for Vibe magazine, believes that the hard-core side of the genre has gone too far. “This new wave of rap music has influenced black children in a bad way. It’s made us think that being hard is the sole definition of being black in the 1990s. It’s almost as if we’ve become the minstrels of the 1990s. White people are sitting back and saying let’s watch the niggas wave guns in videos and talk, and grab their crotches and amuse us” (Sims, 1993).

Amazingly, rap music has become more than an underground expression with limited profits. It is a multi-million dollar industry headed by major entertainment moguls such as Teddy Riley and Russell Simmons. Although rappers may see themselves involved in a successful commercial enterprise, they still confront many problems along the way. “Even though they are successful rappers, they still face many of the same conditions, prejudices and problems that other people of color face,” said Simmons (Sims, 1993).

Rap music has artists who represent different races and styles and have different motives for protest. One of the first groups to be widely recognized is N.W.A. This group marked the beginning of a successful musical career for Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. In 1991, N.W.A. released their controversial best selling album Efil4zaggin (“niggaz 4 life” spelled backwards) which many critics regard as a hateful extreme (Cocks, 1991, p. 78). Their album entered the charts outselling mainstream singers such as Paula Abdul, despite the fact that there was no single, no video, and no air play for promotion. In fifteen days, a million copies had been sold (Cocks, 1991, p. 78). Some of the egregious title cuts on the album Efil4zaggin include “To Kill a Hooker,” “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” and “One Less Bitch” (N.W.A., 1991).

Due to differences amongst the N.W.A. members, the group eventually disbanded. Currently, perhaps the most popular former member is Dr. Dre, a producer and rapper from Compton, Calif., with a police file to validate his violent and threatening lyrics. His best-selling album, The Chronic, introduced rapper Snoop Doggy Dog.


It appears as if the lyrics of the songs of these rappers all share a common denominator: misogynist, drug, and violence themes. Although rap music’s themes may have negative implications, it is necessary to understand the reasoning behind the lyrics, which clearly express a need for social, political and cultural action. Only by understanding the music and deciphering the phrases articulated in black lingo, will society be able to reach a level of understanding of the needs of an exploited community. On the other hand, one must be aware of the consequences of immature audiences being exposed to explicit material. Therefore parents should monitor their childrens’ music purchases, listening, and viewing. Rappers must be held responsible for their actions and be mindful that they are influencing millions of youngsters whose prime role models are as close as the nearest television screen. Unfortunately not everyone is conscious and knowledgeable about the distinction between fiction and reality. Reality is already difficult enough for the underprivileged.


2 Live Crew, As Nasty As They Wanna’ Be (New York: Pac Jam, 2 Live Music [BMI], Luke Records, 1991) (sound recording).

Allport, G.W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Apache, Apache Ain’t Shit (New York: Forked Tongue Music [ASCAP]; Tommy Boy Records, 1993) (sound recording).

Cocks, J. (1991, July 1). A Nasty Jolt for the Top Pops. Time, p.78-79. Condon, Jr., J. C. (1966). Semantics and Communication. London: The Macmillan Co.

Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill (New York: BMG Songs, Inc., Cypress Funky Music, MCA Music Publishing [ASCAP], Ruffhouse/Columbia Records, 1991) (sound recording).

Cypress Hill, Black Sunday, (New York: BMG Songs, Inc., Cypress Funky Music, MCA Music Publishing [ASCAP], Ruffhouse/Columbia Records, 1993) (sound recording)

Dr. Dre, The Chronic (Los Angeles: Ain’t Nuthin’ Goin’ On but Fu_kin’ [sic] Publishing Inc. [ASCAP], Death Row/Interscope/Priority Records, 1992) (sound recording).

Dyson, M. E. (1992). Rights and Responsibilities: 2 Live Crew and Rap’s Moral Vision. Black Sacred Music 6:I, 274-281.

Ehrlich, D. (1993, August 5). Cypress Hill Light up on Black Sunday: Not Just Blowing Smoke. Rolling Stone, p. 16.

Gold, J. (1993, September 30). Day of the Dre: Dr. Dre and his protege, Snoop Doggy Dogg, take hardcore rap from South Central L.A. to your house. Rolling Stone, pp. 38-42, 109, 124.

Katz, C. & Smith, N. (1993). L.A. Intifada: Interview with Mike Davis. Social Text, 33, p. 19-33.

K7 & the Swing Kids, Swing Batta’ Swing (New York: Third & Lex Music/Blue Ink Music/Tee Girl Music/[BMI]; Tommy Boy Records, 1993) (sound recording).

Leland, J. (1992, May 11). The Word on the Street is Heard in the Beat. Newsweek, pp. 52-53.

N.W.A., Efil4zaggin’ (Hollywood: Ruthless Attack Muzick (ASCAP); Ruthless/Priority Records, 1991) (sound recording).

Redman, Blow Your Mind, (New York: Rush Associated Labels, Chaos Records, 1992) (sound recording).

Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. New Hampshire: University Press of New England.

Samuels, David. (1991, November 11). The Rap on Rap. The New Republic, p. 24-29.

Sims, C. (1993, November 28). Gangster Rappers: the lives, the lyrics. The New York Times, p. E3.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle (New York: Suge Publishing/Ain’t Nuthin’ Goin’ On But Fu_kin [ASCAP]; Death Row/Interscope Records, 1993) (sound recording).

Toure. (1993, November 21). Snoop Dogg’s Gentle Hip-Hop Growl. The New York Times, p. H32.

Webster’ Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. (1991). p. 795. Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Weisbard, E. (1994, September). Platter du Jour: Warren G. Spin, Vol. 10, No. 6, p. 135.

Wortman, C. B. & Loftus, E. F. (1992). Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Yoffie, D. H. (Fall 1994). An Open Letter to the Music Industry. Reform Judaism; Vol. 23, No. 1, p. 88.

Franklin B. Krohn, Ph.D., is Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Business Administration at State University of New York College at Fredonia. Frances L. Suazo is a Research Assistant in the Department of Communication, State University of New York College at Fredonia.

The words of music.

by Johan Fornas


Words and music are two distinct symbolic modes. Yet, as human ways of communication or forms of expression, they have much in common. They have important similarities as signifying systems, their mutual penetration is suggested by metaphors like “the language of music” or “the music of language,” and they are multi-modally united in all song genres. Popular song in particular is generally “text-intensive” (Booth 188). Many attempts to distinguish univocally between them turn out to be more difficult than may first be expected. Most cultural practices have no problems separating or combining them, but their defining differences tend to be explained in highly divergent and even contradictory ways. I will here exemplify some such fascinating paradoxes, problematizing what might seem to be self-evident, rather than offering any simple answers. By pointing at certain interesting complexities, at least some main dimensions of the relations between words and music will be discerned. (1)

How is the difference between music and words constructed in cultural practices and theories? The first section mentions some obscure aspects of the words/ music distinction in listening practice, with an emphasis on popular song. The general juxtaposition of the verbal and the musical symbolic modes, as two institutionalized fields of cultural practice and theorization, is particularly dramatized in the phenomenon of song, where their coexistence in one single performance act puts their distinction to a difficult test. Digitally processed techno and rap music has sometimes deliberately blurred the boundaries between speech and song, between words and sounds, or between lyrics and music. The second section presents a few such confusing musical examples that experiment with those borders, by transforming words and noises into music, and making traditional generic classifications useless. The third section then discusses some general problems in conventional definitions of the basic terms, while the final section sums up a possible way to regard the bifurcation of the verbal and musical modes.

Words with music

Song is a multimodal supergenre that mediates between words and music. (2) In most rock and pop songs, they are treated as neatly distinct. On record sleeves, the formula “Words & Music” points towards the creators of a song, indicating that they may be two different persons or at least distinct functions: one author of the lyrics, and one composer of the melody and its accompaniment. In rock, these functions are often amalgamated, when a single singer-songwriter, a pair of artists, or a whole band is presented as the undifferentiated origin of both words and tunes. But copyright laws and music industry practices still tend to stick to this dichotomy, and even singer-songwriters or tight rock groups sometimes adhere to it by writing “Words & Music: …” rather than just “Songs made by: …”.

However, the “writing” of any song-hook, like, for instance, “Be bop-a-lula,” often means inventing words and music simultaneously, in one single move. Such a text-line when spoken is as much a rudimentary melodic motive as are the appropriate five notes on a musical staff. It creates a rhythmic organization that makes only a certain range of musical realization possible. And in the actual performance of such a hook (or indeed any song), the singer again performs the words and the music as one unified whole, in one single act that is indivisible in time and physical space. Instruments play the music, but the singer performs lyrics and tunes absolutely simultaneously. So, the distinction between writing (or performing) music and writing (or performing) words is not always quite clear.

At the opposite end of the communicative process, listeners also often tend to differentiate between words and music, even though they reach the ear at the same moment. Being socialized into modern listening practices, most people can instantaneously disentangle the lyrics from the melodic and rhythmic lines, interpret the words, and compare that meaning with the musical sounds by which it is supported (or counteracted). One may disregard or actively listen for the words, feel how they combine with the music, but it is hard not to hear them as something other and more than pure musical sound. Discussions of popular songs generally make those distinctions: “Good tune, but lousy lyrics….”

But, again, things are not actually quite so clearly divided. Listening to songs and singing means entering a mode of perception where words and music continually interfere. To understand a verbal text one has to perceive how its units are articulated and grouped, which is affected by its rhythmic and melodic performance. And the sound, rhythmic, and melodic parameters of the music in turn depend on which words are sung. The material qualities, the form-relations, and the semantics of words and music often tend to merge. The verbal content and the musical organization are thus linked by an intense cross-traffic, rather than being the two completely separate systems they often appear to be in the end–and in much theoretical analysis.

The different ways to translate aural into visual forms further emphasize their bifurcation. Mostly, it is possible to transcribe and analyze the main musical structure of a pop tune approximately as some kind of a score, with the words in alphabetic writing under the melody. But even though such a notation system creates a neat division, it is never the same as the actual song. Every such visual and spatializing translation of an aural and temporal performance is a kind of analysis that separates what was united by using fundamentally different kinds of transcription systems for the words and the music. In modern Western societies, both the alphabet and conventional musical notation utilize reductively discrete means to summarize complex and continuous processes. They both translate time flows into vertically stacked (read downwards) horizontal lines (read from left to right), written or printed on pages (read in a routine order from front to back), but they also still obviously differ in the precise way this is done, and, when they are combined, it is generally easy to see which visual signs are to be read as verbal and which belong to the musical level.

Other forms of fixation–as, for example, the graphs produced by an oscillograph or the engraved tracks for the needle or the laser beam in a vinyl or a CD record–do not clearly separate words from music within the continuous sound flow of a song. Several elements of a song seem simultaneously to be words and music; in fact, this is true of most of them! Even simple, common words have duration and pitch whether sung or spoken, and within the frame of a song these can be interpreted as musical parameters. Conversely, the most nonsensical utterance can hypothetically be understood and transcribed as part of its lyrics. The separation between words and music is thus only the result of a complicated but quasi-automatic analytic process effected by the transcriber already in the first listening.

Song thus contains both words and music, but speech performance is also more than just a neutral deliverance of verbal semantics. In a rich key work on music and performance, Simon Frith (Performing 159) argues that three things are heard at once when listening to the lyrics of pop songs: words (as a “source of semantic meaning”), rhetoric (“words being used in a special, musical way”), and voices (“human tones” as “signs of persons and personality”). Performance traits like vocal gestures, timbre, and rhythmical inflections are always and inevitably present in spoken words, but they tend to be perceived as some kind of addition to the words as such, and to disappear when they are transcribed in writing. Just as song adds a melody to song lyrics, speech seems to superimpose certain essentially nonverbal traits onto the words spoken. Speech and song are two modes of vocal performance and, while singing written words transforms texts from writing to song, reading them aloud reconstructs them as speech. Visual markers and signs are in both cases translated into audible sound structures. Combinations of letters are read as combinations of phonemes, while intonation and phrasing help convey the formal organization represented by dots and commas in the written version. Reading written words aloud is, thus, just like singing, a performance mediating between the aural and the visual symbolic modes. “The voice records a text,” and “a song text is a script for a public event” (Booth 187, 34), but this is as true when a text is performed in speech form, in lectures, radio shows, live poetry, or theatre drama.

One can actually choose to listen to ordinary speech as if it were a song! Instead of interpreting the rhythmic, melodic, and timbre aspects of a voice and a speech performance in linguistic terms, they can be decoded as music. It would be more or less difficult, depending on the type of speech, and it is not a form of reception that is encouraged and preferred by the speaker or the contextual setting. But it is always possible, since speech uses the same oral medium as song, including sounding words that can be analyzed in terms of many of the same parameters that are used to understand musical works. Many song genres include “heightened” speech–like opera recitative, Brechtian speech-song, speech choirs, rai, or rap–and they are usually classified as speechlike song, well integrated into a musical web rather than as nonmusical speech that just happens to have a musical background.

Machine noises can be sampled and reperformed in a concert hall as musical sounds. This was done by art music futurists in the early twentieth century and by avant-garde rock/pop groups half a century later. A steelworker with a musical ear may also perceive the surrounding factory sounds as having a musical quality. Likewise, a poetic person might perceive speech or even nonhuman sounds like street traffic, bird song, waves, or the wind in the trees as having a musical quality. (3) A performer can use various markers to steer the listener into decoding any sounds either as noises or as music, as speech or as song. In soundscapes (Schafer), film music (Gorbman 56ff), and muzak (Lanza 2ff), the perception of sound sometimes balances or moves up and down across the border between noise, speech, and music.

Meaning is made through acts of interpretation, in encounters between texts and subjects in specific contexts. It is through hearing sounds, rather than making them, that their meanings are produced, including the distinctions between genres and types of expression. Reception is more essential here than material production. Listening practices are not simple reproduction of encoded meanings, but a highly productive form of consumption, producing impressions, emotions, social relations, and meaning. As the most distinctive way to use cultural phenomena or consume cultural commodities, interpretation is an active creation of meaning, resulting from the contextualized encounter between human subjects and texts. Independent of how they are produced, certain sounds are perceived in an “esthetic” way, activating particular codes of interpretation and criteria of judgment which are situated in historically developed frameworks, including publishers, copyright legislators, and music critics who uphold the standard division of words/music. John Blacking (10) puts a similar “emphasis on the primacy of listening,” as does Nicholas Cook (10): “Music is an interaction between sound and listener.” (4) Having grown up in a culture where song and speech have for centuries been cultivated and institutionalized as separate symbolic modes, people are so used to making instantaneous classification of sounds that such automated distinctions are easily (though falsely) thought of as absolutely given.

Words as music

Everyday musical and analytical practices in modern Western society mostly take some kind of distinction between words and music for granted. However, some earlier, marginal or experimental kinds of music making and listening either escape these entities or actively rework and stretch them. This is also true for recent popular music practices, in film scores as well as in rap and dance genres. Such limit cases point at the blurred character of the borderline between words and music, as well as between song and speech.

In 1993, the Swedish dance group L.P.C. (Lucky People Center) released a fascinating album called Welcome to Lucky People Center, with an intriguing opening (see Fig. 1). First, the sound of striking a match is followed by a blowing sound, as from a burning flame. Over this sound, a dense monologue is monotonously spoken by the male singer’s voice. The voice belongs to Freddie Wadling, the main singer of L.P.C. Halfway through, another voice is also heard, slowly repeating “tic-toc” louder and louder until the last “toc” coincides with the word “bomb”, after which this first number of the album ends with a sudden silence, just before the second “tune” starts. This first piece of just 40 seconds is transcribed in the CD-booklet in a similarly condensed and uninterrupted way as it is performed:

he used to ask his mother why are we here where do we go how is it

   that you are dressed like that why am I not as big as you where is

   the sun when the moon shines why don’t I breathe under water is

   the sum of a mass not equivalent to a form is santa claus a

   transsexual does rock’n’roll make you rich as the boy grew into

   manhood he kept asking all kinds of people about all kinds of

   things until his mother seriously considered retroactive abortion

   or to take the boy to a psychiatrist or even a taxidermist or to

   the dogfoodfactory but instead she bought the boy a microphone!

   tictoc poor old mum you are sitting on a bomb!!

He used to ask his mother:

–Why are we here?

–Where do we go?

–How is it that you are dressed like that?

–Why am I not as big as you?

–Where is the sun when the moon shines?

–Why don’t I breathe under water?

–Is the sum of a mass not equivalent to a form?

–Is Santa Claus a transsexual?

–Does rock’n’roll make you rich?

As the boy grew into manhood

he kept asking all kinds of people about all kinds of things

until his mother seriously considered retroactive abortion

or to take the boy to a psychiatrist

or even a taxidermist

or to the dogfoodfactory.

But instead she bought the boy a microphone!

Tictoc …

Poor old mum–you are sitting on a bomb!!

While the album cover version expresses the seemingly unstoppable and chaotic flow of words as sounding materiality, and deliberately leaves much ordering and interpretation work to the reader, this alternative rendering offers a more definite and easily discernable form-relational (syntactic) structure and (semantic) meaning of the text. One may perhaps say that the actual vocal performance lies somewhere halfway between these two versions. It is interesting to compare what the typography does to the written text with what the phrasing and emphases do to the spoken or sung text. Pictorial aspects of the script obviously interrelate with its meaning and impact, just as the “musical” aspects of the speech or song performance affect the way its words are interpreted by a listener. In both versions, materiality, form-relations and meaning interact densely, rather than being totally separated from each other. Meaning is affected by–yes, even constructed only on the basis of–material structures, while a reader’s or listener’s preliminary understanding of what the lyric means in turn aids the perception of some of its material and formal aspects as well. The difference in how these two verbal transcriptions are experienced shows that modes of transcription are useful for analysis and understanding, but never innocently neutral. The same applies for musical transcriptions, as well as for genre classifications. “Tictoc” may be perceived as a spoken introduction to the whole record album, or as a separate tune of its own. Its presentation on the record does not distinguish it from the other tunes, except for its shorter length. As a separate piece, it has traits reminiscent of theatre, like a radio drama. It also has similarities to recorded, read poetry or prose, with just some background noises added, as in rock poetry slams. From another point of reference, it may instead be heard as a somewhat strange rap song with musical accompaniment consisting of a sampled burning match and a second rap voice (“tic-toc”). The context of the performance and listening will determine which generic codes will be applicable, not so much the actual performed sounds themselves.

It is fairly easy to transcribe it in a musical staff, with a pulse, clear rhythms and even melodic lines formed by the interplay of these two voices and the burning match sound. But when it comes to the words, the easiest transcription is to print them alphabetically and to add them to the musical transcription in a manner that again installs a bifurcation between the two modes (Ex. 1).

All these transformations entail decisions as to whether certain sounds are to be shown as belonging to the speech (word) level or to the sound (music) level of the performance. Such decisions can always be challenged: is “tic-toc” a verbal or a nonverbal sound? How is the recital to be denoted and positioned in relation to the staff system?

More questions arise as the second track, “Rodney King,” makes us understand that this is a record that is consistently built up by sampled voices, noises, and instrumental sounds, all electronically processed to create a clearly musical web. The text of “Tictoc” contains intertextual quotations from other texts, songs, and films, but they are concealed by the voice of the L.P.C. singer. (5) In “Rodney King” and most other entries on the album, the sampling techniques make this intertextuality much more obvious. The voices heard are not from the singer who made the first monologue, but “authentic” voices recorded from television programs where they were never intended as musical statements. But here they seem to get musical qualities. Some are at least as much music as is the vocal line in rap: the sounds and rhythmic organization of the phonemes are carefully utilized and reinterpreted as musical parameters. And in some cases, the human speech is digitally manipulated and given a clearer pitch, so that it sounds as if Rodney King really sings a duet with former President George Bush.

One question is who sings here. The real Rodney King did not sing but rather spoke those words: it is the King of this tune who sings with the President. Still, they are both constructions made and mixed by the L.P.C. collective. None of those real individuals was ever part of the group. A photo in the accompanying CD booklet shows L.P.C.’s “fabricated” King and President, and many other faces behind the voices sampled on the record, joined in a montage group photo together with the “real” L.P.C. members themselves (Fig. 2). This is a pictorial variant of the same collage/sampling technique.


Such authorial queries aside (see Fornas “Listen”), the border between song and speech is blurred, and it is hard to decide what is music, what is noise, and what are lyrics in this performance. As with “Tictoc,” if “Rodney King” is at all a song, it forces listeners to reconsider certain conventional distinctions that are routinely made in more traditional pop genres.

L.A. cop:         Get up! Get up, sit on the curb!

                  Sit on the curb! Hands!

                  Stay in the car, stay in the car! […]

Supporters:       Rodney King! Rodney King!

Rodney King:      Settin’ these fires

President Bush:   I felt anger

Rodney King:      It’s not right

President Bush:   I felt pain

Rodney King:      It’s not gonna change anything

President Bush:   I felt anger

Rodney King:      It’s not right

President Bush:   I felt pain […]

he written text version is here part of what is presented on the disk, which is in its turn a rather condensed version of what is heard. The musical transcription (Ex. 2) is only a small example of how it could be shown on paper. It is not hard to find similar examples in popular music, certainly today but also in older genres. Listening, for example, to Sheila Chandra “speaking in tongues” (on The Zen Kiss, 1994) makes it hard to know for sure what is speech and what is song, or exactly what is text and what is music in that song. The use of sampling and other digital technology has not only questioned those concepts of musical work and authorship that were in fact already unstable. By sampling natural sounds, radio talk, or television noise, that which used to be heard as nonmusical sounds (noise or speech) is creatively woven into a musical (con)text, and its musical qualities like rhythm, timbre, or melodic lines are suddenly perceived. Rap has also pointed to ambiguities in the distinction between speech and song, and between text and music, which have actually always existed but have often been naturalized and concealed in traditional rock and pop practices. A rap performance is a speech-song that further destabilizes these boundaries and thus emphasizes that which unites speech and song, thereby more intimately reconnecting the verbal and musical modes. (6)

Words for music

Moving from musical practices to terminology, it is strange to see how vague key concepts like music and text or song and speech actually are. This obscurity might be the reverse of their fruitfully polysemic character: only dead terms can be univocally defined! But their seemingly natural self-evidence conceals the fact that their boundaries are fleeting and result from multidimensional interconnections of contextualized cultural practices.

One might turn to a dictionary to find valid definitions of “music,” but it is very hard, even in estimated musical encyclopedias, to find a satisfying discussion of what can be meant by this crucial concept. Most efforts do not manage simultaneously to satisfy three basic demands: (1) to cover the main genres and forms that are generally experienced and described as music; (2) to distinguish music from speech; (3) to distinguish music from other noises. Many definitions are either too narrow to capture the great wealth of music, independent of time and genre, or too wide to exclude both talk and those natural or technological noises that are not generally thought of as music. Here I will not systematically overview all main definitions, and do not long for an all-encompassing definition to solve all problems, but it is interesting to reflect upon what this notorious obscurity implies.

Older, romantic sources think of music as sounds combined in forms of beauty that express emotion. It is obvious in today’s late modern period that such definitions fall short of their task. Much music–from Gregorian chant to Glassian minimalism–has no aim and no key effect to express personal emotion. Neither is formal beauty a universally shared musical value, as much as film music or thrash metal are deliberately ugly. In these ways such definitions remain too narrow, but they are also too wide, since they cannot satisfactorily distinguish music from speech: public speaking, radio theatre, or recited poetry also combine sounds in more or less beautiful forms and with at least some kind of expressive functions.

Modern versions are less obviously problematic, but similar problems still tend to return in new disguises. The main standard formula today of seeing music as “humanly organized sounds” (e.g. Blacking 3, 89) needs qualification in order to fulfill its distinguishing tasks. First, it has to be widened or modified, so that the organization of this “sonic order” is understood as being made in the listening process rather than in the physical sound production itself. Blacking (11) is clear on this point, by arguing that music presupposes “the perception of order in the realm of sound” (emphasis added). Since one can listen to noises or natural sounds as if they were music, thus making them into music, this human organization of sounds obviously takes place primarily in reception rather than in tone production.

The other problem remains to be solved however. Which kind of sonic order is being produced? Spoken words and acoustic signals are also humanly arranged sonic organizations, both as they are produced and perceived. To then demand that the sounds must be of a particular kind, for instance composed by notes in a scale or quantifiable rhythms, seems not to be a good solution. Much folk, avant-garde and ambient music does not build upon well-defined single notes or separable rhythms, choosing instead to integrate and recombine a diverse range of more or less strange noises. On the other hand, not only rap but also everyday speech, can with some effort be interpreted as arranged in notes and rhythms. It might be hard to transcribe exact pitches but, again, not very much harder than with micro-intervals and sliding tones in blues or folk ballads, and many spoken syllables can be noted with pretty accurate rhythmic values.

If the sounds in question are instead specified as nonverbal aural expressions, this would seem to exclude songs from being music, since sung words are both verbal and musical at the same time. At least there are then many border cases where sung sound elements can be interpreted both as words and as notes or rhythms. Excluding verbal sounds thus does not help very much, since humanly created nonmusical sounds remain, since songs seem to be simultaneously verbal and musical, and since the problem is then only displaced onto the definition of words.

Vocal music is “the encounter between a language and a voice” (Barthes 181). But so is speech, only with a different balance between the two. In speech, language is often so much in focus that the voice/sound aspect–however crucial it may always be for delivering a certain message–becomes secondary. In many singing genres, the voice instead tends to become so important as to push the language (the words of the lyrics and their semantic meaning) into the background.

To define words and verbality is hardly any easier. If song texts are the words of a song, some of them might be spoken rather than sung, so that the sung words are only a part of the song’s words. (These song words in turn comprise only one level of the whole song text, in the wide sense of this term, including musical, pictorial, and gestural elements as well.) Recitative, speech-song, and rap blur this line of division, as does, of course, the general difficulty of distinguishing song from speech. Who and what decides–according to which criteria–which sound elements in a song belong to the verbal level and which sound formations should be understood as true words? This is always the result of a contestable and contextualized act of interpretation, interacting with the generic rules upheld by specific interpretive communities. It may often be debated which sounds of a song can or should be transcribed in/as written words. Whistling, humming, or nonsense (e.g. “scat”) singing may either be understood as textless performances where the human voice is just used as a musical instrument, or as creative poetic extensions of the range of verbal expressions, where “A-o-a-a-i” or “M-m-m-m-mm-m” would transcribe these emergent, quasiverbal units. No dictionary can offer any clear solution, since words are continuously invented, and nonsensical utterances may actually be heard as meaningful in a given intratextual context.

Is “Be bop-a-lula” a line of lyrics or just an essentially nonverbal transcription of musical sounds that just happen to be produced vocally? “Bebop” can be found in a dictionary, but here is used with virtually no reference to its common sense, and even if “a lula” sounds like an English word, it still has no clear meaning. A moaning or a cry may or may not be integrated into a word-basedverbal structure. Humming, sighing, shouting, and screaming can be heard as parts of pure music, as elements of speech, or just as nonverbal and nonmusical noises. Anything that is vocally uttered may in principle enter the realm of verbality and become at least potential words, just as everything in what is socially coded as a musical performance may be heard as music.

Having meaning is not enough to define words, since images and musical themes are also in some sense meaningful. (7) “Meaning is not inherent in music, but neither is it in language” (McClary 21). “Music is no different from language in that it is a signifying practice with its own particular characteristics” (Shepherd and Wicke 3, also 203). Also, “although music can be textual, it is textual in some very distinctive ways,” and it is important to remember that “popular music’s textuality is comprised of sounds, words, images, and movement” in a rather complex manner (Shepherd 174).

Defining what are the words, lyrics, or text in a song may thus be as difficult as to know what precisely is its music. Specifying which such sounds are musical (music), which are verbal (speech), which are simultaneously both (song), and which are none of these (noise) makes it necessary to consider sociocultural and historically developed contexts, practices, and institutions in which these sounds are heard and interpreted. In this sense, David Brackett (125) stresses how power through institutions and discourses ultimately “determines which types of organized sound may be defined as ‘music’.” For Jacques Attali (4), music is “the organization of noise,” but this particular sonic organization has a specific history that has ascribed to music a particular range of forms, meanings, and functions in society. The practices that distinguish music, song, speech, and noise from each other, and from nonaural sense modes, are never once and for all given or natural. These concepts are not fixed essences, but the result of complex social and historical discourses and practices, where the interplay between the differential power of individuals, groups, and institutions is a crucial determinant.

There is no single, simple way to define the word/music bifurcation. The two terms cannot be defined once and for all, since there are no unitary essences embodied in musical and textual works. There is not even any consistent set of criteria for how to distinguish them. What will be found are contradictory networks of criteria, inherent in shifting practices situated in contexts of a temporal and spatial, historical and social kind. Words and music are open, polysemic, and context-bound constructs that are always in process, and can only temporarily and for certain purposes be frozen into well-structured models.

The prevalent terminology for symbolic modes like speech, writing, images, and music is often inconsistent, but some preliminary definitions may perhaps be proposed. Words are specific combinations of an unlimited, in principle, number of morphemes (basic meaningful units), in turn composed of clearly limited sets of letters (in writing) or phonemes (in speech) acknowledged within a certain language. Verbality is the symbolic mode that composes utterances, works, and discourses by combining such units according to various accepted sets of grammatical, pragmatic, and generic rules for their combinations. “Lyrics,” like “poetry,” denote a specific verbal genre–song lyrics are the words of songs–but the term has a somewhat high-cultural aura, which is problematic in many popular music genres. Song lyrics may look like poems, but they often work more like dramatic plays. (8)

A special problem is posed by the polysemic character of the term “text.” As has already been evident above, much discourse about music uses “text” as almost synonymous with “words” or “lyrics.” On record sleeves, “text & music” is as common as “words & music,” and many of the scholarly quotations mentioned above make similar presuppositions. In literary studies this may be less problematic, since the main texts investigated there are verbal and written; but when music or other means of expression are studied, this usage may cause confusion. A strong tradition of hermeneutic and semiotic cultural studies has chosen to see all kinds of ordered units in discourse as texts in a much wider sense, going back to the Latin roots of the term “text” as a term for “weaving” or “web,” related also to “texture” and “textile.”

Texts are then, at least, loosely unified networks of signifying units in any combination of symbolic modes–webs where symbols are intervowen to form meaningful ordered structures. They are complex totalities that are more than the sum of their constituents, in that the textual totality enriches and modifies the significance of each of its symbolic constituents by simultaneously focusing and widening its signifying scope. A document is more than the sum of its letters, words, and sentences, just as a painting is more than the sum of its colors and lines, or the song “Rodney King” is more than the sum of its many voices, notes, and noises. Texts in the widest sense are therefore entities on a higher order than the symbols of which they are composed, and they are to some extent fixated and rounded off as complex wholes.

In media studies, a text may then be a television program, a poster, or a sculpture, just as well as it may be a spoken dialogue or a pop song. In this usage, the text of a song includes both words and music, which of course collides with the more common usage of the term. “There are two elements to song, sound and text,” argues Feld (219), in a context that does not make it completely clear if this puts sounds up against words or instead intends a distinction between pure sensual materiality and the generalized orderings of textual structures. I have here tried to stick to the wider sense and preferred usage “words” or “lyrics” instead of “texts” when intending the verbal layer of songs. A verbal text is then a specific set of words composed as a work into a unit presented and appropriated as a composite whole, independent of their material shape as written, spoken, or sung. In a very narrow sense, a (verbal) text is commonly understood as primarily a written or even printed and published verbal work.

Musical terminology has no obvious counterpart to “words” as basic elements of verbal expressions. The term “music” denotes the activity and its result as a whole, including either any sounds that are esthetically organized by listeners, or just those produced by humans and instruments, sometimes even excluding song. Other narrow definitions only include those organized sounds that are marked as music by specific institutions (producers, advertisers, critics), or that fall within the genres one likes (“X is not music!”). In many Western genres, one can talk about tones or even notes as well-defined elements of fixed duration, pitch, and amplitude, comparable to letters (in writing) and phonemes (in speech), but they do not fit rock and pop equally well. Sounds is an often preferred but not quite sufficient alternative, since sound is also one particular musical parameter and, more importantly, since spoken words are also sounds. Meaningful sound units, parallel to morphemes (situated between phonemes and words) in linguistics, have been named musemes, a technical term with no evident equivalent in common language. (9)

Words and music

Both words and music can thus be very different things, related to each other in highly divergent ways. The borders between them are notoriously leaky. They cannot be reduced either to a polar opposition or a harmonious complementarity. They are included in cultural spheres where different genres are grouped into institutionalized totalities with many overlaps and blurred margins.

When differences between symbolic modes are thematized, a sharp polarization is often assumed between words and music (or between words and images, but that is another story). These differences are actually neither absolute nor irrelevant, but processual: they are as constructed as are the symbolic modes themselves, and they result from ongoing practices that strive to keep them apart. Music and words are not the two autonomous and opposing fields they often appear to be, but relative gravitational centers within the streams of human communication. They are sometimes seen as being each other’s opposites, but that can only be accomplished by a strongly metaphorical use of key terms that reduces the symbolic modes from the complex totalities which they are in practice into neat inversions or negations of each other, thereby misrepresenting their actual interplay.

Their polysemic character does not imply that they are arbitrary. Within specific interpretive communities and (musical or theoretical) practice fields, they remain pretty self-evident. Experimental genres may question the borders, but most popular music still rests on institutionalized practices where they are clearly separated, for all practical purposes. There are human sets of (listening) activities that concentrate upon the material and formal sound aspects of symbolic webs (while not excluding their meanings), and others that focus on linguistic meaning aspects (where sounds and rhythms are then not absent but secondary). As long as people thus continue to distinguish between literature (focusing words) and music (focusing sounds), then it will also be relevant to separate musical from verbal aspects of songs, in spite of the virtual impossibility to find any universally valid criterion for this.

The dichotomy of words and music is no true dichotomy at all, but a fragile construction resulting from intersubjective discourses, where each term is constituted more like a genre than a physical, objective fact. They are both intersubjective conventions–not objective essences clearly cut off from each other, nor subjectively arbitrary or imaginary illusions. The differences between song and speech or between music and words are neither sharp nor objectively given. Still, in spite of all paradoxical examples, they work pretty smoothly in most esthetic practices. Each functional, social, and generic context creates a kind of interpretive community where, in a given spatiotemporal or sociocultural context, it is pretty clear what is what. The arduously accomplished separation of words from music is more of a goal than a starting point, rather a tendency than a fact, and it is always threatened by counteracting hybridizing practices. Once the differentiation between words and music has evolved in history and been institutionalized on various levels, symbolic practices cannot avoid relating to it, but its seemingly natural self-evidence is a fiction.

Modern popular music offers plenty of useful illustrations to these general issues, as has hopefully been obvious in this presentation. Even more than in opera, for instance, where institutionalized divisions between composers and librettists invite a more strict separation, many pop songs are conceived and perceived as verbal-musical units, and the experimental genres mentioned above offer plenty of good examples of bordercrossings. Song is a hybrid form that combines and is, therefore, simultaneously words and music. Songs are more often classified as a kind of music than a type of drama, speech, or literature. Perceiving song lyrics apart from music and performance seems like an artificial procedure of translation into another mode or sphere, while humming a song without its lyrics may lessen its impact but remains within the song mode. Song words are thus verbal components of basic musical practices, indicating the overlap between the two modes. And even without the existence of song, spoken as well as written words and live or recorded music would have much in common. They are not completely autonomous or different spheres of communication. Not only do they intertextually interrelate (with various references to and borrowings from each other), but they also share some important characteristics and are more often inseparably blended than kept rigorously apart.


I thank two anonymous referees for useful comments that helped improve this text considerably.


(1.) This article was originally intended for publication in an anthology on Nordic rock research, which, regrettably, was never eventually realized. It was written in tandem with Fornas (“Text and Music Revisited”), which supplements the present study by scrutinizing some more theoretical aspects of these issues, whereas the intention here is to keep closer to everyday music experiences. A short early version is Fornas (“Text + Music”).

(2.) For the sake of simplicity, I here concentrate upon the symbolic modes of words and music as organized in relation to the sense of hearing, with only some comparisons with visual representations of such aural forms. I am, however, well aware that images, kinetics, touch, and smell interact with them and should actually be included in a more exhaustive treatment of these issues (see Fornas (Cultural Theory) on symbolic modes in general, and Frith, Lindberg or Ganetz on lyrics/music-relations in pop and rock).

(3.) Stephen Feld analyses ways in which bird song (and other natural sounds) are given meaning by human signifying practices.

(4.) Kevin Barry traces a movement towards an emphasis of reception and interpretation in eighteenth-century discourses on music, language, and signs.

(5.) Tony Mitchell has in a private conversation pointed out that the words “Tic toc, poor old mom, you are sitting on a bomb” appear in the film Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, UK, 1966), which in turn is based upon a TV play written by David Mercer.

(6.) The research on noise perception and “soundscapes” mixing musical, verbal, and other sounds is informative here (see Schafer; Jarviluoma).

7. For relevant theories of musical signification, see Nattiez, or Shepherd and Wicke.

(8.) “In songs, words are the signs of a voice. A song is always a performance and song words are always spoken out, heard in someone’s accent. Songs are more like plays than poems; song words work as speech and speech acts, bearing meaning not just semantically, but also as structures of sound that are direct signs of emotion and marks of character. Singers use non-verbal as well as verbal devices to make their points …” (Frith Music 120).

(9.) The useful term “museme” derives from Charles Seeger, and was elaborated and refined in the musical semiotics of Philip Tagg. Theo van Leeuwen makes a rather technical effort systematically to “explore the common ground between speech, music and other sounds” (1).

Works cited

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.

Barry, Kevin. Language, Music and the Sign: A Study in Aesthetics, Poetics and Poetic Practice from Collins to Coleridge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain of the Voice.” Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 179-89.

Blacking, John. How Musical is Man? Seattle / London: U of Washington P, 1973.

Booth, Mark W. The Experience of Songs. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1981.

Brackett, David. “Music.” Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Eds Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss. Malden, MA / Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. 124-40.

Cook, Nicholas. Music, Imagination and Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Feld, Steven. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990.

Fornas, Johan. Cultural Theory and Late Modernity. London: Sage, 1995.

–. “Listen to Your Voice! Authenticity and Reflexivity in Rock, Rap and Techno Music.” New Formations 24 (1994): 155-73.

–. “Text + Music.” Music on Show: Issues of Performance. Eds Tarja Hautamaki and Helmi Jarviluoma. Tampere: Department of Folk Tradition, 1998. 104-107.

–. “Text and Music Revisited.” Theory, Culture & Society, 14.3 (1997): 109-23.

Frith, Simon. Music for Pleasure. Essays in the Sociology of Pop. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.

–. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

Ganetz, Hillevi. Hennes roster. Rocktexter av Turid Lundqvist, Eva Dahlgren och Kajsa Grytt. [Her voices: Rock lyrics by three Swedish female rock artists.] Stockholm / Stehag: Symposion, 1997.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies. Narrative Film Music. Bloomington, IN / Indianapolis, IN: Indiana UP, 1987.

Jarviluoma, Helmi, ed. Soundscapes. Essays on Vroom and Moo. Tampere / Seinajoki: Department of Folk Tradition / Institute of Rhythm Music, 1994.

Lanza, Joseph. Elevator Music. A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-listening, and Other Moodsong. New York: Picador USA, 1995.

Lindberg, Ulf. Rockens text. Ord, musik och mening. [The text of rock: Words, music and meaning.] Stockholm / Stehag: Symposion, 1995.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota, MN / Oxford: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Seeger, Charles. “On the Moods of a Musical Logic.” Studies in Musicology 1935-1975. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.

Shepherd, John. “Text.” Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Eds Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss. Malden, MA / Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. 156-77.

Shepherd, John, and Peter Wicke. Music and Cultural Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1977.

Tagg, Philip. Kojak–50 Seconds of Television Music: Toward the Analysis of Effect in Popular Music. Goteborg: Department of Musicology, 1979.

van Leeuwen, Theo. Speech, Music, Sound. London: Macmillan, 1999.


Chandra, Sheila. The Zen Kiss (CD). England, 1994. CDRW45.

L.P.C. Welcome to Lucky People Center (CD). Stockholm, 1993. MNWCD 234.

Johan Fornas has a background in musicology, and in media and communication studies. He is now Professor at the Department of Culture Studies at Campus Norrkoping of Linkoping University and Director of the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden. His many publications about rock, alternative movements, youth culture, identity, modernity, media use, and cultural theory include the three 1995 English volumes In Garageland: Rock, Youth and Modernity, Youth Culture in Late Modernity and Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, and the 2002 publication Digital Borderlands: Cultural Studies of Identity and Interactivity on the Internet.

Cite this page

Contemporary urban music: controversial messages in hip-hop and rap lyrics. (2016, Jul 28). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront