Music Plus Words

© Lodewijk Muns 2020, after Otto Böhler's silhouette of Johan Messchaert and Julius Röntgen performing Schumann's Ich grolle nicht.

Adding Words to Songs Without Them

The Lied ohne Worte is a paradox. It is made possible by the fact that wordless instrumental music can nevertheless be recognized as song – as music that suggests both the singing voice and the structure of a poem. And along with that, poetic meaning, even if that meaning cannot be precisely defined.

What Felix Mendelssohn wanted to express with his Lieder ohne Worte is, by his own often quoted explanation, ideas that are not too vague or indeterminate to be put into words, but rather too precise. (I put the full quotation in a footnote.)

If there is a semblance of paradox in this statement, it is because of the habitual association of ‘vague’ or ‘indeterminate’ with verbal description. But vagueness of description does not imply vagueness of the object described. Most of our everyday experiences cannot be precisely expressed in words. (How exactly do you feel, this very moment?) The more particular the experience, the less verbalizable it is: the use of words inevitably involves abstraction. We don’t have words for everything.

If music is called vague or meaningless, the cause is likely to be a narrow, logocentric idea of meaning: meaning must be describable in words. This view is not even adequate for language itself. As Ludwig Wittgenstein (2010: 151) has noted: “Understanding a sentence in language is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think”. The expression with which a sentence is spoken, and the intention we infer, are part of the meaning of that sentence. Similar layers of meaning may be present in musical sentences.

The precision Mendelssohn speaks of is, I think, that of a highly particular experience. The music does not describe this experience; it creates it or calls it into being.

Like music, poetry is not about experiences; both offer experiences. In the particularity of these experiences poetry and music may compete; and sometimes the text of a song may seem to be an interpretation of the music, rather than the other way round.

Childish Games

Songs from the lieder repertoire have been successfully arranged for piano solo; ‘songs without words’ have been composed in close imitation of vocal models; and original instrumental compositions (including Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte)  have been converted into vocal music with text. Generally, these transformations show how closely the instrumental and vocal repertoire are related.

There would be little reason to insist on this, had not a strong tradition in musical aesthetics insisted on the ‘purity’ of instrumental music, and the ‘antithetical’ nature of the musical and literary arts (Kivy 2009).

In a letter to Mendelssohn his sister Fanny Hensel mentions their own “experiment” of adding text to Felix’ instrumental compositions (Todd 2012: 206). But for Fanny and Felix, this was a childhood joke. Adding words to music is, according to Fanny, as “tasteless” as the contrary practice of converting true lieder into songs without words (as Liszt did at the time).

That childish game still exercises irresistible charm; particularly when the effect is parody (here is one of several discussions devoted to the topic). I’ve earlier mentioned the words that Carl Maria von Weber added to Carl Reissiger’s waltz (that has falsely become known as Weber’s Last Musical Thought): Net wahr? Du bist mein Schatzerl? (Ain’t it true? You are my sweetheart?). The G major theme of Schubert’s Unvollendete has by a long tradition become associated with the words Frieda, Wo kommste her, Wo gehste hin, Wann kommste wieda? (Frieda, when will you come? When will you go? When will you come back?). Such textings may be insidiously memorable, particularly when they are successful in bringing out the prosodic, speech-like features of the melody itself.

Translating the Untranslatable

We cannot translate music into words, nor fully describe it. But we can often more or less successfully give an indication of its meaning. Crucial is the more or less: ‘more’ implies that we are getting closer to whatever the musical meaning may be.

In the early nineteenth century, the music theorist Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny has made an attempt to interpret the first movement of Mozart’s D minor Quartet K421 as a dramatic monologue (Dido’s lament). His purpose was to disprove the alleged vagueness of music:

Many people think that the language of Orpheus is a vague idiom, and that music is like the clouds, which may resemble anything one chooses. If that were true, why should we shed tears at one moment, shudder at the next? (Momigny 1806: 380; my transl.).

We may find his attempt not quite successful, for various reasons. But it cannot be dismissed as pointless. The usefulness of such an experiment is found in the process of approximation of the meaning sensed, not in deciphering a message. But for this process we need options of comparison.

Here is the beginning of Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte op. 62, nr. 1, with two new texts that might be sung to it.

No Sir, I will not yield to your advances
Never could I do such a shameful thing.

Dearest, why are your eyes so full of sadness?
Darling! What is the meaning of those tears?

I think your preference will be predictable. The experiment will get more interesting when we ask: why is the one we prefer better, and what is needed to improve it further? And should it be in German?

Apart from the question of formal features (such as syntax, metre, accent), there is the nature of the speech act and the context it implies. What kind of character is speaking? What is the intention, situation, interaction? All of this, we instinctively feel, may match or not match the musical expression in various degrees – meaning that all of this is implied in the music’s own musical particularity.

Whenever music has poetic or speech-like characteristics, it has meaning as a particular act of speech.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy to Marc André Souchay (who had proposed verbal explanations for his Lieder ohne Worte), 15 Oktober 1842

There is so much talk about music, and so little is said. I believe that words are inadequate for that purpose, and if I thought otherwise, I would stop making music altogether. People usually complain that music is ambiguous; it leaves unclear what they are supposed to think of, whereas words are understood by everyone. But for me it is precisely the reverse. […] What to me is expressed by music that I love are thoughts not too indeterminate to be put into words, but rather too determinate.

If you ask me what I had in mind, I will say: the song, just as it stands. And if I had thought of some specific words for one or another of these songs, I would never communicate them to anyone, because a word does not mean the same thing to different people, because only the song can say the same thing, can arouse the same feelings in different persons, — a feeling that cannot be expressed through the same words. (Mendelssohn 1863: 337-338, my transl.)


Kivy, Peter. 2009. Antithetical Arts: On the Ancient Quarrel between Literature and Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix. 1863. Briefe aus den Jahren 1833 bis 1847. Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn.

Momigny, Jérôme-Joseph de. 1806. Cours complet d’harmonie et de composition. Vol. 1. Paris: l’Auteur.

Todd, R. Larry. 2012. “Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte and the Limits of Musical Expression.” In Nicole Grimes and Angela Mace (eds). Mendelssohn Perspectives. Farnham: Ashgate. 197-222.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2009. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. 4th ed. Blackwell.