It’s just a three-letter word…

butBut often the word “but” is the most important word in a song lyric. Why’s that? “But” is a “coordinating conjunction” and it “coordinates” the meaning of the phrases it comes between; specifically, “but” is a signal to the reader or listener that the statement about to come (the one following the conjunction) is different from or contrasts significantly with the previous statement.

Look at the opening of this post, for instance:

It’s just a three letter word, but often “but” is the most important word in a song lyric.

The first phrase (“just a three letter word”) seems to suggest that small words lack importance, while the information after the coordinating conjunction contradicts the original implication.

The truth of this was made evident to me in class last week when a student of mine presented her work on Adam Guettel’s song Migratory V.

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together —
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Notice how the word “but” serves as a pivot, a turning point in the argument of the first two stanzas of this song. In each case, the first part of the stanza provides examples of things that single individuals can accomplish. After the “but,” the content of the lyric turns to group accomplishments (“fly together,” “all as one we sound the everlasting sound”), and argues these are also important – perhaps even more important, since they earn God’s favor and hold the key to “our salvation.” In the note Adam penned for the CD booklet and published vocal selections, he speaks of how the songs in Myths and Hymns (the song cycle in which “Migratory V” is featured) address our “desire to transcend earthly bounds, to bond with something or someone greater.”

Over the course of analyzing hundreds of songs with student performers, I have found that the transitions between phrases (the “dings,” if you will, using the SAVI term that refers to the onset of a new thought) fall into a handful of categories. One significant category is the “but ding.” Oh, go ahead, say it out loud – it sounds vaguely bawdy, but it plays a crucial role in the architecture of thought in many songs. Right now, off the top of your head, I’ll bet you can think of a song lyric in which the word “but” figures prominently as a transitional or “hinge” word. If you can, leave me a comment!

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