Interpreting Interpretation

Bill Pereby Bill Pere

In my three decades in the music business, I’ve seen that songwriters or singer-songwriters who actively seek out objective feedback on their songs and their performances stand the greatest chance of making rapid advances along their chosen path. I recently returned from a conference in the Nashville area where I participated on panels with several well-connected industry professionals, critiquing dozens of songs. The most frequent aspect of the songs singled out as having room for improvement is that the lyrics were overly vague, ambiguous, or diffuse. The details were in the writer’s mind, but not shared with the listener.
I hear all the time at critique sessions, interviews, panels, or online: songwriters saying “I want to leave my songs open to interpretation” or “I want each person to get their own meaning from my songs”, and in the same breath saying “I want to connect with people”. In order to have any useful discussion, we have to understand what this really means. Consider three things:

(a) Typically, a song represents something that comes from an important part of you that you want to share.


(b) If you say something in general conversation and someone completely misinterprets you, you’d rarely just let it go without trying at least once to clarify what you meant.

(c) “I want to leave my meaning open to interpretation” is the equivalent of saying “It’s perfectly okay with me if someone imposes their own meaning on mywords.”

If we accept these things as generally accurate (of course there are always exceptions), then a songwriter being “okay” with leaving the song ‘open to interpretation’ can only mean one of the following (and there is nothing “wrong” with any of these – it’s just important that you have your Eyes-Wide-Open when you make your choices)

(a) the song isn’t saying anything truly important to you;
(b) you don’t really know what the song is saying;
(c) you’re not trying to communicate or connect, just express yourself for your own satisfaction, not that of your listeners;

(d) you’re finding it difficult to be clear about what you mean, so you settle for a “5” instead of continuing to work toward a “10” (the Path of Least Resistance);
(e) you’ve written a deliberately unclear intellectual/psychological exercise to see what people will think it means or to generate speculation and ‘buzz’ – (a risky but sometimes effective marketing strategy);

(f) you are understanding the word “interpretation” in a different way

To make an Eyes-Wide-Open choice, understand that if you choose either a, b, c, or d above, you’re not giving a listener much reason to care about the song or you as a writer. If you choose e, you’re targeting a relatively small demographic (i.e. those who would like “I Am the Walrus” if it just came out today for the first time from some unknown writer/artist).

If f above applies, it is not a matter of intentional choice, but of miscommunication. There are three relevant meanings to “interpretation “, and if two people are not using the same meaning, it’s the classic example of falsely believing communication has occurred when in fact it has not. Here are the three possibilities for understanding how one is using the word “interpretation” when discussing songs:

Definition #1: Artistic Interpretation

A well-written song is usually performed by many different artists, and each one gives it a stylistically and personally different treatment in the performance. Different conductors leading the same classical symphonic work from the same printed music can produce very different sounding versions. What’s at work here is the artists’ personalization of the performance i.e. how they believe it “should” be presented. Even if different artists all agree on what a particular song means, they may have different visions for how it is best presented, based on their skills and the song’s relevance to their life. If the writer and the artist have communicated, then the presentation of the song will sound authentic, regardless of style.

Sometimes we hear a version of a song which is seems terribly out of place and incongruous with the message (just think of all the versions you’ve heard of the Star-Spangled Banner before sporting events). Ideally, all elements in the performance of a song should be in service to the song, not to the performer. If a performer has great vocal agility and can add lots of flourishes and melismata, there can be a tendency to embellish at every opportunity, whether or not it’s appropriate to what the song is saying. In that case, the artist is making the song serve his or her own skills, rather than the reverse.

Definition #2 – Imposing an Unintended Meaning

This is the case where a listener filters what you are saying through all their own personal experiences (as we all do…) comes to a conclusion, and then ASSUMES that it is what YOU meant to say. They have imposed their own meaning on you, something you probably would not allow in normal conversational interaction. You may be speaking figuratively, but are being taken literally, or vice-verse. General words like “good”, “bad” , “pretty”, loyal”, rarely mean the same thing to different people.

Alternatively, a listener might give you some respect by saying “This song means ’x’ to me, but I realize that might not be what the writer was saying”. In that case, the listener has not usurped your meaning, but you have not communicated or connected with them, as you are on different wavelengths. It’s your choice whether that’s okay with you or not, but how would it make you feel if that happened in an important conversation? How important to you is the message of your song?

Definition #3: Personalization Rather than Interpretation

This is probably what most writers really mean when they say “open to interpretation”. The more accurate word is “personalization”. The key to balancing listener interpretation while maintaining control of your meaning is leaving space for the listener to personalize certain aspects of the song i.e. those NOT essential to your message or story, while being specific about those elements which ARE critical to your message or story. This usually lies in the realm of the 6 W’s – who-what-where-when-why-how. Which of these do you need to set in stone so that listeners cannot alter them, and which can you allow listeners to fill in for themselves?

Doorways and Windows into Your Song

Consider some well known songs: “Galveston” fixes the place, as opposed to “My Little Town” which leaves space to personalize that aspect. “Oh, what a night….late December 1963…” fixes the time vs. “It Was a Very Good Year” which leaves the dates to be personalized, but instead fixes the singer’s exact ages in each verse (e.g. “When I was seventeen…”). When the Temptations began “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with “It was the third of September; that day I’ll always remember, ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died.” they fixed a date and a situation, but not a place. “Wichita Lineman” fixes the place and the occupation vs. “Nine to Five”, which leaves space for personalizing those same elements. “Michelle, ma belle…” fixes the person’s name vs. “Ma Belle Amie” (my beautiful love…), which can refer to any name. “Jack and Diane” fixes the names and a geographic region (“two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), but does not specify Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa., etc. However, you know it’s not the “south side of Chicago”, which is inhabited by Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.

In the great Paul Simon song “Poem on the Underground Wall” all the details of time, place, situation, and the character’s emotional state are given to you in vivid detail. But the key verse:

Now from his pocket quick he flashes,
The crayon on the wall he slashes,
Deep upon the advertising,
A single-worded poem comprising
 four letters.

leaves you to decide for yourself what that four-letter word is. No matter what you decide, (and your choices are strongly steered in the direction of the “f” word) you still can’t change the meaning, message, and cinema of the song, even if you concluded that the four-letter word was “love”.

In many songs where there are specific characters, even if their names or occupations are specified, the nature of the character can still invite a listener into the song. As long as a character is not portrayed in a negative way, a listener may choose to identify with the character and their situation or motivation, and enter the song through that character’s experience. This requires that those parts of the character be made clear, and presented early in the song. A wishy-washy character or someone who is cruel and thoughtless will not be an appealing portal for a person to enter your song, so if you have that kind of character, you need another entry point for the listener. If you have a character with no background to give them depth, that would not be an inviting entry point for a listener, as they would not want to inhabit a hollow shell. Think of whether a person would want to trade places with your character(s). If not, what is the alternate entry way for them into the world you have created?

Go through a bunch of songs you know and look at which parts are fixed and which are left for you to personalize. Look at how the balance is handled. Some songs do it well, some do not. You can precisely control how much space you give a listener to personalize the song, what parts you want keep immutable, and what kind of entry points you offer to your listeners. If you choose to intentionally leave an important element unspecified, you need a solid reason for doing so. Even today, there is still discussion about exactly what it was that Billy Joe MacAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge (“Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry) . However, every other aspect of that song, considered by Billboard as one of the Top 500 of all time, is absolutely clear and specific.

In Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Luka”, the listener clearly knows that it is about a victim of abuse, but they do not know (nor need to know) that it is a specific 9-year old boy that Vega is writing about, as she described in several online blogs and interviews.

Remember that to truly connect with people through your music, the goal is NOT to have each person come away from your song with their own truth, but to have the listener come away with a personalized version of your truth.

Consistent with the inevitable existence of exceptions, there is one area where the more vague and non-specific a song is, the better is “chance” it has – this is the area of film and TV placement. Listen to any of the background songs you here on popular TV shows. They create mood and have non-specific lyrics (unless the song is written specifically for a script). This allows a music director to apply it to a variety of situations which are defined by the visuals and situations of the script. What’s happening here is that the visuals and the script are providing all the specifics that the song is not. A soundtrack placement does not necessarily mean a song is a well crafted – just that it is an appropriate song for a mood. The meaning given to it by a music director or a viewer may not necessarily be what your meaning is – in fact it’s usually just background music – But you’re trading that for the fact that your song can be placed in a potentially royalty-paying soundtrack. Your choice.

When you “leave a little bit of mystery” in your song, or want to “leave the listener guessing”, are you helping or hurting your appeal ? The answer to this lies in a study done by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, described in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” (Vintage Books 2007, ISBN 1400077427). Quite simply, it showed that once a question is raised in a person’s mind, they can’t stand not knowing the answer.

Do not underestimate the power of curiosity. There are many ways to use it to your advantage in marketing and promotion, but in the crafting of a song, if your lyrics raise a question, you need to provide the answer or least a fair set of clues to the answer. Don’t leave the listener hanging unless you want them to feel discomfort and incompleteness.

Can you choose to write a song that doesn’t really mean much i.e. is just an empty vessel for any interpretation? Of course – there are many such songs which have become popular for one reason or another (the music, the artist, the production, etc). But keep your Eyes Wide Open that you are making that choice, and don’t fool yourself into believing the song is connecting you to your listeners in a genuine way, when in fact it really is not.

For more on this topic, visit

Bill Pere was named one of the “Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry” by Music Connection Magazine. With more than 30 years in the music business working with top industry pros as a songwriter, performer, recording artist and educator, Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 16 CDs, and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association. He is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble ( Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological Type. He is a member of CMEA and MENC, and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy, he helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the music business. Bill’s song analyses and critiques are among the best in the industry. Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has received two awards for Outstanding contribution to Music Education.

© Copyright 2010 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reposted without permission of the author. Reproduction for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. For workshops, consultation, critiques, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at, and