I also like lyrics – how do people listen to music that has no words? What do you do with your brain during that time? I’m missing that part of musical understanding.
Among other things, my freshman college roommate and I bonded over music. Tool, in particular, and later A Perfect Circle. To be fair, you could skip to the chase and say we bonded over Maynard James Keenan.
We quickly noticed that we appreciated very different things. He was inspired by Maynard’s lyrics; they’re poetic, disturbing, and wryly amusing. I marvelled at the drummer’s unsettling, byantine rhythyms, and the bassist’s delicate balance between harmony and noise. We bonded over A Perfect Circle’s constituent parts the same way.
As a long time classical pianist, I can happily, if needlessly, reassure you. Music without words still has substance. On the contrary, most instrumental music has more substance than lyrical music. Gershwin, and lyrical jazz in general, may be an exception. Maybe opera, too, but I avoid that like the plague, so I wouldn’t know.
Just like lyrics, music also has a few different orthogonal dimensions. You listen to the words, but you also hear their rhythym and aesthetics, right? Same with music. I love lots of pieces for themselves – Debussy’s La Mer, Barber’s Agnus Dei, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek – but I also love listening to the way they’re arranged, interpreted, and performed.
Bringing it back to lyrics. You’ve heard the so-called Phish remix of Dr. Dre‘s Gin and Juice, right? Or Jonathan Coulton‘s cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot‘s Baby Got Back? Same words as the originals, but man, vive le difference, huh? That’s some quality orthogonal dimensions right there.
Anyway. You knew all that. You were asking, what do you do when you listen to music without words? Personally, I do the same thing that you probably do when you listen to music with words. Absorb it. Turn it over in my head. Compare it to other pieces by the same composer. Compare it to other pieces, other composers. Listen for individual layers, voices, instruments. Try to trace the music back to events in the composer’s life, or the performance to the orchestra’s.
At least, that’s the idea. I’m usually lucky if I get past the “turn it over in my head” stage. Still, I just heard Mozart and Sibelius at the symphony, so you can probably chalk all this up to nostalgia, because I love Sibelius, especially live, and because it’s past the halfway point of the season.
…and because I miss the piano. I have low-grade RSI, and playing piano is even worse on hands than typing. My RSI isn’t bad, but still, I’m working hard to keep it that way, so I can’t really play piano much. I have to go with the whole bread-winning thing.
Instead, I listen to music I used to play. I listen to music I hoped to play one day. I go to the symphony. And I sit here and log a few thousand unnecessary keystrokes on my hands’ odometers. Perverse, huh?