4 Foundational Strategies For Interpreting Song Lyrics

I've done a few very difficult song translations (my deloused album interpretation comes to mind), and I've learned some different techniques for getting through to the root meaning of a song.

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It's easy enough to share some of them with you now, so read on.

Context

Whatever you do when translating a song, you want to set the stage for your translation by giving yourself some context as to what the song might be about.

Do some searching on the internet to see if the artist has anything to say about the subject! I see no reason in looking for interpretations if you haven't first done some research to see:

  1. If anyone else hasn't already interpreted this song
  2. If the lyricist has revealed the meaning of the song in an interview or article somewhere.

A few good websites for lyric interpretation would be RapGenius (for hip-hop), SongMeanings.net, or even this site (for the few interpretations that I have).

After doing some searching, make sure you check the artists Wikipedia page for any more insight into the lyrics.

If you find only a few tidbits about the song (but not a full meaning), then you can use that information as a filter to see all your future interpretations through.

Once you've gathered whatever information you can find, it's time to start doing some grunt work yourself.

Word Definitions

You'll want to go through the lyrics, and start deciphering whatever you think the lyrics mean to you. A lot of this will be done through simple intuition, but sometimes you will need to use the resources of a dictionary, or a thesaurus.

Once again, learning more and more about the words are going to set a more accurate context for what you are reading.

If the song is particularly complex, you may need to do this line-by-line.

What happens if you run into a word that doesn't exist? Well, then you'll have to start trying to get into the lyricists head to see what they might have been thinking when they wrote it.

A good example is in the Mars Volta Song, "Son Et Lumiere", where he says:

"Clipside of The Pinkeyed Flight"

The word "clipside" is the made up word here. I did some strategic research in that old online dictionary (hardly), and was consistently corrected by the search engines, saying "Did you mean flipside?".

Well I didn't, but maybe that's what Cedric was meaning when he wrote the line! After looking at the definition for the word flipside, I realized that it actually fit in the line very well.

By why change it at all?

Cedric is using "clipside" instead of "flipside" to give more meaning to the line. This song is talking about a drug addict who overdoses on drugs.

Using the "clipping" analogy to say how his body is "clipping/overloading" is a really great use of combining two words. While it makes the clipping analogy, it also reveals the "Flip side/bad Side" of the drugs effect on him.

If you go through a similar exercise as that when trying to decipher made up words, you will likely be successful.

Get The Opinion Of People Around You

Another good idea would be to share difficult interpretations with other people, even if you don't suspect that they would be any good at interpreting lyrics (though I recommend you start with the ones who are!)

When I was interpreting the line "sterling clear blackened ice" for my Mars Volta interpretation, I had no idea what it meant for weeks and weeks. It frustrated me.

Then I showed the line to my cousin, Dayton, who happened to have knowledge on lots of metals, and pointed out out that "sterling" means to have something of great quality (for some reason I was getting the word confused with the fish, Sturgeon, in my head).

An outsiders opinion might have been useful here.

His observation made me realize that Cedric Bixler-Zavala was talking about something that was very clear, but also very opaque (Blackened Ice).

It was used in his song to reveal a deceiving nature of a character in the story.

Now I would never have expected my little cousin to shed any wisdom on the situation, but he did. If I had not shown him, I may never have found out the definition.

It was a humbling experience, and showed me that sometimes people know more than you think, so don't underestimate them.

Give Yourself Some Time

If you can't figure out all the lines right now, make sure you let yourself settle for a bit. There really are some songs that you won't be able to figure out all tonight, but if you sleep on it and let your mind settle on it, you could come up with a new perspective by the morning (or maybe even by next week).

Allow yourself some grace, especially on difficult songs.

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