What determines how we listen to music?
Early in 2022, I was confronted by discourse I did not recognize on platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. Across the web, users were separating themselves by whether they were shape rotators or wordcels.
With a term like “wordcel” involved, it is perhaps of little surprise that the discussion was turbocharged by venture capitalist and all-time dweeb Marc Andreessen. And while the terminology was emblematic of some of the worst trends in online culture at the time, the revelation that most people prefer to process abstract ideas in one of two ways — either by picturing images of the idea (shape rotators) or by picturing the words that define the idea (wordcels) — floored me.1
Much of conversation is based on what you’re thinking, but comparatively little is ever dedicated to how you have those thoughts, so it makes sense that most of us go our whole lives without realizing a huge percentage of the population processes their thoughts in a completely different manner. Until ChatGPT’s mind reading beta is opened to the public, it’s still impossible to peer inside a brain and watch along as it thinks.
Of similar shock was the notion that there are loads of people out there without an inner monologue. As is likely evidenced by my writing style, I have a strong inner voice. I hear my thoughts in my own voice, and changes in text are reflected by my inner voice. For example, I tend to read italics as a whisper. I can’t explain why, but I think that’s downright mundane when compared to the 30-something British woman who reported that her inner voice is “probably offensive to Italians.”
If you’re fluent in multiple languages, ask yourself what language your dreams use. Do you know? I have a few close friends who grew up in bilingual households, and I’ve been given a variety of answers to the question, with seemingly no connection between the non-English language they know and whether their dreams are in English.
¿Qué pasa con los sueños que no están en inglés sobre suscribirse a mi blog?
And what about taste? I hate the taste of chocolate and have for my whole life. Both of my parents love chocolate. Does chocolate taste the same to me as it does to them, meaning I dislike the flavor? Or does my brain process the flavor of chocolate differently, meaning what I perceive to be chocolate (and therefore unappealing) is to my parents’ brains a different-yet-still-foul taste? Researchers aren’t even in agreement about whether taste preferences are a product of evolution, so I doubt Schrödinger’s Taste Buds are high up on the list of soon-to-solved problems.
The latest unknowable quandary to catch my attention is the divide in how people listen to music. Like the other examples I’ve outlined, there are broadly two camps of people: those who focus on the lyrics of a song, and those who primarily listen to its musical elements. For simplicity, I will refer to these groups as lyrical listeners and musical minds.
I have been a lyrical listener for my whole life. To me, the best songs are those that tell a powerful story. The musical elements of a song undoubtedly contribute to the emotional narrative of the piece, but the words are the most important component. For lyrical listeners like myself, a song can be enjoyable, even great, in spite of a bad beat or bland composition, but a song with stale lyrics cannot achieve the same heights on the back of its instrumentals alone.
According to the latest official IBT reader survey, a slight majority of my readership agrees, as 59% of you identify as lyrical listeners. A question I should have asked in tandem is what genres of music you prefer, as now that I understand that this divide exists, I am curious if it formed because of my preference for a lyric-heavy genre like hip-hop or if my affinity for rap music caused me to develop into a lyrical listener.
If I had to take an unscientific guess, I would venture to say that how you listen determines what you listen to rather than the alternative. As an example, I am largely uninterested in country music, but there are certain songs like “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss or Luke Combs’ cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” with such resonant and compelling lyrics as to have secured a permanent place on my playlists.
My hypothesis is further supported by the Spotify library of my girlfriend, who inspired this piece with her revelation to me that she rarely, if ever, focuses on a song’s words when listening. Music is deeply personal, so I won’t give specific examples, but despite her self-declared status as a musical mind, she has multiple songs saved that she has specifically flagged for me as having powerful lyrics.
Further complicating the lyrics versus music divide is the existence of multiple genres with few, if any, lyrics. Entire music styles like jazz, classical, and electronic are built mainly on the back of their instrumental compositions. I’m a lyrical listener through-and-through, but the most recent concert I attended was an EDM festival, where the lyrics were rarely more complicated than your standard piece of kindergarten literature.
At the same time, while I can easily name my favorite artists active in various electronic scenes, I find it harder to recall specific albums and songs by those artists, often resorting to humming the tune to indicate the house or trance song I am trying to discuss. My brain cannot seem to store melodies and beats the same way as it can entire verses.
Curiously, I did play an instrument. For nearly ten years, I was active on the bass, both upright and electric. I can still read music, albeit slowly and only in the bass clef. And as anyone who has played in a band lacking a bassist can tell you, the bass is central to the beat of the song. Unlike centerpiece instruments like guitar and piano, which often play along to the same melody as the vocalist, the bass is rarely highlighted in the same way. And yet, my brain rejected this musical melding, potentially drawn to the fame and fortune foisted upon lead singers and guitar players the world over.
I would also like to clarify that my love of lyrics does not prevent me from enjoying songs with lighthearted lyrics. My entire discography is not Immortal Technique and MF Doom, and hatred of pop music is often thinly veiled misogyny. When I say a song needs strong lyrics, I do not mean those lyrics need to be quadruple entendres and rhymed quatrains. Simplicity done well is often more effective than complexity executed sloppily. Olivia Rodrigo writes bangers.
In case any university deans are reading this Substack, I have additional queries related to this topic that I would love to study, and I’ll happily do so in the name of your school in exchange for a small grant. $200,000 and front row tickets for the next Kendrick Lamar show should suffice.
For while IBT is committed to the rigorous standards of journalistic integrity, it is possible that the official IBT survey on lyrics versus music was not truly representative of our population. Too few of you are sharing my posts on Facebook, and it shows, because only two people over the age of 50 replied. Does age influence whether you’re a lyrical listener or musical mind?
While younger people are embracing closed captions regardless of hearing ability to bolster our melted attention spans, it is yet unknown whether how we listen to music has been similarly influenced by the internet. For the record, both over-50 respondents are lyrical listeners, while all of the musical minds whom I could identify are members of Gen Z.
Additionally, how does music in a foreign language work in our brains? I have songs in my library written in languages ranging from German to Arabic, but despite the ubiquitous nature of translation services, lyrics are often written in colloquial vocabulary, immune to Google Translate. This problem is only magnified for languages not based in Latin. Try pasting an Arabic pop song into the translation page and see if you can follow along.
If a diehard lyric listener like myself can mumble along happily to the German bop “Augenbling” while my brother jams out to Egyptian phenom Mohamed Ramadan’s smash hit “Mafia,” does this mean lyric listening has a language barrier? How can us lyric listeners explain the sheer dominance of K-pop, from PSY’s “Gangnam Style” becoming the first video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube back in 2012 to the record-setting releases from groups like BTS and BLACKPINK?
When asked to define the line between art and obscenity, the Supreme Court has repeatedly shrugged and said “we know it when we see it.” Regardless of language or lyric quality or musical composition, art by definition refuses classification. The labels we ascribe to ourselves, like lyric listeners or music minds, and to our music, like rap and country, are to help us make sense of a world in which nothing is straightforward.
Lil Nas X broke Billboard by fusing hip-hop and country, supposed polar opposites. Korean pop groups set streaming records in the United States. Lyric listeners head bang to the latest house tracks from RÜFÜS DU SOL. As long as you find joy in your music library, does it really matter why?
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Deadliest Journeys — Afghanistan: The Wakhan Passage | Best Documentary (YouTube)
The Killing of Osama bin Laden | London Review of Books
I Went on a Package Trip for Millennials Who Travel Alone. Help Me. | The New York Times Magazine
Girl didn't want goat slaughtered; officials sent deputies | The Los Angeles Times
“Blurred Lines,” Harbinger of Doom | Pitchfork
Are you a lyric listener or musical mind? Comment below and let me know.
A hearty thank you to those who took my reader survey and facilitated this week’s edition, and congratulations to N.S. on winning the survey-incentive IBT sticker. You can buy one of your own for the low, low price of $5 today.
Lastly, someone used the Bluesky code I sent out last time! Here’s another in case you want to ditch Twitter for good:
Have an easy week!
For the record, I am a wordcel, I think? I still find this split a bit confusing.