Lyrical Dissonance

When the melody doesn’t match the lyrics.

In most songs the melody aligns with content of the lyrics. Sad melodies have sad lyrics, upbeat melodies have happy positive lyrics. Lyrical Dissonance is when there’s a mismatch. Most typically lyrical dissonance is found in songs that have happy melodies but, upon closer inspection, have subversively dark lyrics. This juxtaposition of incongruent melody to lyrics is found across genres.

Jimmie Davis’s 1940 version of You Are My Sunshine, a song with much darker lyrics than the melody would lead you to believe.

One of the most famous examples is 1940’s You Are My Sunshine first made famous by Jimmie Davis (but recorded by many musicians over the years). The melody is so bright & cheerful it’s understandable why it’s one of the official state songs of Louisiana. The lyrics however, are about a man who is heartbreakingly alone having been abandoned by his former love and that happiness (his sunshine) has left his life.

LDN by Lily Allen is a clever use of lyrical dissonance in a few ways.

LDN by Lily Allen is a very clever example in that it explores dissonance on multiple levels. The song is about how reality is not quite what it seems, the dissonance between perceived reality vs. actual reality, and that behind a happy surface-level exterior there is frequently a darker truth.

Then there is the second level with the lyrical dissonance between the happy upbeat melody and the dark lyrics. Finally, to add yet another level, the music video for this song visualizes this dissonance with Allen moving through a saturated colorful happy London, but when she moves away from a scene the grimy darker reality is exposed. The two versions of each scene conflicting with one another.

For having a saccharine sweet melody, Copacabana is a dark song about a depressed lonely showgirl.

There are many happy sounding songs with lyrics about lost loves or failed romances

Copacabana by Barry Manilow – is about a showgirl whose bartender love is killed, their Copcacabana nightclub eventually becomes a discotheque, and she lives out her life alone, disheveled, and depressed drinking herself blind thinking of the past.
Mamma Mia by ABBA – is about a failed relationship full of regret, wishing they could have the person back.
Act Naturally by Buck Owens – the singer is going to be successful in the motion picture industry with roles of sad depressed characters just by acting naturally given his experience at being depressed & lonely.
Walking The Floor Over You by Ernest Tubb – the singer has been left by his love and now, depressed and alone, he paces around the room not knowing what to do with himself.
Once A Day by Connie Smith – the singer has been left by her love but only feels depressed once a day. Unfortunately that “once” is the entirety of the day, every day.
Lovefool by The Cardigans – the singer is desperate to be loved by someone who isn’t interested.
Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac – like many Fleetwood Mac songs, Go Your Own Way is about a failed relationship within the band. The song is about a man (Lyndsey Buckingham) doing everything for his love (Stevie Nicks) but realizing he has to end the relationship because he’s being used.
Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations – the singer is being strung along by a person who doesn’t really care about him, but despite this abuse he still wants a real relationship with this person.
Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs – is about a girl who has sex with various guys thinking it will make her popular, but in reality she’s treated like a joke and mocked behind her back. The John Hughes movie was named after the song, but the plot of the movie is nothing like the lyrics of the song.
Macarena by Los Del Rio – the original lyrics for the dance craze pop hit Macarena are about a woman who, while her boyfriend is away serving in the military, cheats on him over and over again.

Dancing in the Dark, despite all the dancing in the video and the title of the song, isn’t really about dancing.

Lyrical dissonance can also hide depression with upbeat music

Dancing In the Dark by Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen was pushed to write another hit single for his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.. Angry and pressured, he wrote Dancing In the Dark in one night. The singer is isolated, depressed, tired, and dissatisfied with his life, needing help to find a way out (and in Springsteen’s case, needing a way to escape the alienating pressure to produce hit songs). The “dancing in the dark” in this case is his moving in darkness trying to find meaning / light for his life.
Piano Man by Billy Joel – is about a piano player at a local bar observing the various regulars at the bar, each of whom have unfulfilled dreams with little chance of every finding success.
Chandelier by Sia – is about a protagonist whose excessive party lifestyle is masking pain and unresolved problems.
Another Day, Another Dollar by Wynn Stewart – is about working your life away, day after day.
Today by the Smashing Pumpkins – Today is the greatest day, because the suicidal protagonist (who has already cut himself in self-harm, “pink ribbon scars”) has decided that his life can not get any worse. The title is ironic, that from this point on things can only be better than absolute rock bottom.

The line in Today by the Smashing Pumpkins that “today is the greatest day …” is ironic.

Lust for Life is about overcoming heroin addiction.

Fun songs about heroin

• Lust For Life by Iggy Pop – is named for the 1956 bio film about Vincent van Gough, Lust for Life. That aside, it’s a song about recovering from heroin addiction, it references the work of William S. Burroughs, and generally speaks of depravity. It’s not the fun joie de vivre anthem people think it is, and Royal Caribbean certainly shouldn’t have used it to sell cruises.
• There She Goes by The La’s – is about the love of heroin, or possibly about a woman.
• I’m Waiting For The Man by the Velvet Underground – is about going up to Harlem to buy some heroin. The “man” in question is the protagonist’s drug dealer.

[Nothing But] Flowers is about living in a post-apocalyptic world, reclaimed by nature.

Going from nature, to industrial society, and back again

Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell – is about environmentalism, regret, and the destruction of nature.
[Nothing But] Flowers by the Talking Heads – is like a reverse Big Yellow Taxi. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed urban areas and the singer is torn between appreciating the new natural world and longing for the comforts of his former industrialized lifestyle.

Shiny Happy People is an incredibly happy melody but the lyrics are about Chinese propaganda and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Violence masked by fun melodies

• Shiny Happy People by R.E.M. – is a sardonic satirical song about the smiling happy people seen in Chinese propaganda in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Bonus: the Sesame Street parody Happy Furry Monsters really is about happy furry monsters.)
• Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant – is about the 1981 Brixton Riot in London where hundreds of people were injured clashing with the police.
Mack the Knife – has a long and complicated history, but the version popularized by Bobby Darin is about a knife-wielding murderous gangster.
Jack Straw by the Grateful Dead – inspired by Of Mice and Men, Jack Straw is a murder ballad about a group of outlaws who are on the run from the law. As there is no honor among thieves members start killing each other off. (Bonus: this video includes the legendary naked Oregon pole guy.)
• Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by the Beatles – is about a hammer wielding murderer.
• Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – is an incredibly dark song about West African slaves being brought to the United States and the female slaves being raped at night by their owner.
• Pumped up Kicks by Foster The People – is about a kid named Robert dreaming of shooting his classmates at school.
• I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats – is about an actual school shooting in San Diego in 1979. The shooter, Brenda Spencer was asked why she killed people on the playground and she said “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Fortunate Son is one of the most famous anti-war protest anthems, delivered with a catchy up-tempo melody.

And of course, happy songs protesting war

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival – used in montage scenes for Vietnam war movies, in ad campaigns to help sell blue jeans, and even without permission by the ultimate fortunate son Donald Trump (Trump, his staff, and his MAGA followers being too dumb to see the irony of its use) Fortunate Son is arguably the most famous anti-war anthem. Behind the up-tempo rock melody is a social criticism of how the unaffected elite social class wage wars that poor kids have to go fight & die in.
99 Red Balloons by Nena – is about the futility of war and how something as innocent as releasing balloons near the Berlin Wall could cause military escalation and eventual mutual destruction on both sides.
Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen – like Dancing In the Dark, this song is also on the Born in the U.S.A. album. It’s a protest song. It’s about a disillusioned working-class veteran who society has rejected & alienated. It is not the pro-America Reagan-era anthem most people think it is, but rather it’s a scathing criticism of 1980s America.

Two internet jokes (one by Post-Punk specifically just about The Smiths) that humorously summarize Lyrical Dissonance.

Black Sabbath’s War Pigs is an example of lyrical dissonance the other way around, dark melody but positive anti-war lyrics.

Dark Melodies, Positive Messages

Not as common, but lyrical dissonance is also found the other way around with dark melodies & positive lyrics. Black Sabbath’s 1970 song War Pigs is very dark melodically, but the lyrics are strongly anti-war. War Pigs is like a darker sounding Fortunate Son. It’s a criticism of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and how the rich & powerful benefit from war while facing none of the dangers, sending the poor off to die.

Incongruent music in TV & film is a common trope now, but it was popularized by this Stealers Wheel straight razor scene in Reservoir Dogs.
(Warning: if you’re squeamish, this isn’t for you)

Added info: Musical dissonance/incongruity can also be found in a slightly different way in TV & film. This is where the mood of the song being played does not align to what is taking place in the scene. Frequently this is done with a happy song being played as a counterpoint to a dark disturbing scene.

This has become a common trope in entertainment today but a few early examples helped define the concept.
• David Lynch employed this concept in Blue Velvet with Roy Orbison’s In Dreams.
• The X-Files used Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful! Wonderful! multiple times in perhaps the show’s most infamous episode Home.
• However, no director is more famous for this than Quentin Tarantino. One of Tarantino’s earliest and best known uses of this technique is in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and its well-known use of the Stealers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle with You.

A Beatles Opening & Closing

Two of the most famous chords in music.

An opening chord

It’s been called the most famous chord in rock ’n roll. It’s the jangly opening chord that starts the Beatles 1964 hit song A Hard Day’s Night which also starts the album & the movie of the same name. This one sound is actually multiple instruments playing different notes simultaneously. For years it has been the subject of debate trying to solve exactly what instruments and chords are being played.

The jangly opening of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night is one of the most famous opening chords in music.

One of the reasons it is so hard to solve this mystery lies in the concept of polyphonic music. In polyphonic music different instruments or voices are playing different melodies that together create a larger whole. European polyphonic music originated in the early Middle Ages but became much more complex by the 16th century and onward (as heard in the organ fugues of J.S. Bach). When you line up the rows of sounds being played, Renaissance era polyphonic music paid attention to the vertical sounds, the harmonies and chords, that could happen when the different rows of music would momentarily come together a key points. This brings us back to the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night.

The opening chord is made up of five instruments sounding simultaneously. When you line up those five instruments, together they produce a sound that no single instrument is playing on its own. This is why it has been so hard to solve exactly what was being played – you have to separate out five different instruments that are sounding as one big chord.

A lot more has been written on this chord, but you can listen to Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive) recount his experience of getting to visit the Abbey Road Studio and listen to the opening chord one track at a time to break it down.

A Closing chord

From the most famous opening chord, to one of the most famous closing chords. The final chord in A Day In The Life ends both the song and the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, much has been written about the closing cord of A Day In The Life. The song was written by Lennon & McCartney as usual, but their contributions remained fairly separate in the song.

The opening portion of the song was by John Lennon which then transitions to the Paul McCartney portion following a chaotic swelling of the orchestra (which will be used again). The song transitions back to Lennon using a modified melody based on Hey Joe. Following the second Lennon portion the chaotic swelling orchestra is used again to build tension and dissonance. The orchestra swells higher and higher, with seemingly no end in sight.

The final explosion of sound at the end of A Day In The Life marks both the end of the song and, for some, the end of the Beatles’ most prolific period of creativity.

Frank Lloyd Wright used a concept he called “compression & release” in his architecture. He would compress you into a small space and then, turn a corner, you are released into a spacious open room. His grand open rooms are that much more impressive after you have just been compressed in a small space. He would build tension and then release it in a big payoff. In a similar way, the Beatles architected the end of A Day In The Life.

The chaotic climbing swirling orchestra increasingly builds tension for the listener until suddenly a pause and then an explosion of a thunderous monophonic harmonious final chord. This final chord is actually produced by three pianos and a harmonium all playing an E-major chord simultaneously. It rings out for over 40 seconds by a slow increase in the volume in the studio.

The Alpha and the Omega

It’s said that upon hearing an early version of A Day In The Life, an already frayed Brian Wilson was left in shambles realizing the the song’s greatness. Jonathan Gould, author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, said the closing chord was “… a forty-second meditation on finality that leaves each member of the audience listening with a new kind of attention and awareness to the sound of nothing at all”

Bringing both chords together, British music critic Ian MacDonald said that the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night and the closing chord of A Day In The Life were “… opening and closing the group’s middle period of peak creativity.”

An added bonus: Jeff Beck’s fantastic all-instrumental cover of A Day In The Life.

With other Yardbirds present, Jeff Beck demonstrates his virtuosity by playing an instrumental version of A Day In The Life.

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.

Dogie, Not Doggy

In American Western slang, a dogie is a calf (not a dog).

The 1937 film Git Along Little Dogies features the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. He and others sing a variety of classic western songs such as Red River Valley, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Oh! Susanna, and others. They even sing some of them as a medley with lyrics on the screen for the audience to sing along.

The movie’s title though, may leave some wondering exactly what a “dogie” is. The movie was named for a song of the same name, which existed as early as 1893. In the American West a dogie is slang for a stray or motherless calf. Nobody is exactly sure where the term came from but in the book Western Words, author Ramon Adams speculates that because small calves who are weened from their mothers too soon are unable to properly digest coarse grass, the resulting swelling of their bellies resembled a batch of sourdough starter in a sack. This became “dough-guts” and eventually just “dogies.”

Rosanna Arquette’s Two Pop Hits

The award winning actress Rosanna Arquette is said to have been the inspiration for more than one hit song of the 1980s.


A bit on the nose, 1982’s Rosanna by Toto was written while Arquette was dating Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. While the name of the song was taken from Arquette, the lyrics are about a mixture of people and not specifically about Rosanna Arquette.

The video, which is fantastically very ‘80s, has a then unknown Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Rhodes as dancers, both of whom went on to be in 1987’s Dirty Dancing.

Toto’s 1982 hit Rosanna was named for Rosanna Arquette.

In Your Eyes and Say Anything

Arquette is also said to have been the inspiration for the even bigger hit 1986’s In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. Arquette was dating Gabriel at the time and was not only the inspiration for the song but also encouraged Gabriel to let Cameron Crowe use the song in 1989’s Say Anything … .

In Say Anything … the song is used in the most iconic moment of the film (and one of the most memorable scenes in cinema) where, like a 1980s Romeo & Juliet, John Cusack’s character holds his boombox over his head below the bedroom window of Ione Skye’s character.

Peter Gabriel’s smash hit In Your Eyes, while not named for Arquette, is about her.

Elvis’s Fool’s Gold

One of Elvis’s favorite sandwiches was the 8,000 calorie Fool’s Gold Loaf.

On the evening of February 1st, 1976 Elvis and his buddies were in Memphis talking about this sandwich they loved from a restaurant called the Colorado Mine Company in Denver. Right there and then Elvis decided “we’re going”, had his jet readied, and the group flew from Memphis to Denver on a midnight run for sandwiches.

The sandwich is called the Fool’s Gold Loaf, it’s 8,000 calories, and if you would like to make your own you will need:

  • 1 hollowed-out loaf of French bread
  • 1 entire jar of smooth peanut butter
  • 1 entire jar of grape jelly
  • 1 pound of bacon

Elvis purchased 22 Fool’s Gold sandwiches for himself and his buddies, and the husband & wife owners of the Colorado Mine Company met them at the airport hanger with the sandwiches as well as Perrier and champagne.