Like all great conflicts, it began innocently enough with a comment.
"I like this song," said Buddy. It was lunch time, and he was eating the special of the day, King Ranch Chicken. Buddy's comment was meant for the tune the cafeteria was playing. Most times, the cafeteria played elevator music--instrumental interpretations of popular songs--bland, inoffensive, just peppy enough to be pleasant, but unremarkable enough to be forgotten as soon as you left the cafeteria.
But every now then, like they do with their menu, the cafeteria would serve up a pleasant surprise, like the King Ranch Chicken special and the song they were playing, "Apache", the version by the Incredible Bongo Band.
Apache is a great song, and I agreed with Buddy. I call him Buddy, because he wears those retro, thick framed glasses reminiscent of Buddy Holly. It's a style choice. His glasses are actually a deep, dark, navy blue color. He also owns a fire engine red pair that he sports for outings and for upscale or dressy occasions.
If he wanted to, he could've just gotten corrective surgery to fix his vision. He even went as far as getting an exam and a consultation. But in the end, Buddy decided not to get the surgery. Whatever his reasons, he decided to stick to his signature glasses. Perhaps some day, he'd have the surgery. Or maybe never. But that was totally his choice, and I respected that.
I didn't know it then, but Buddy's innocuous comment on the song would launch an intense debate that would consume most of our lunch break and spill over to the rest of the day. It happens every now and then.
Most lunches, we talked about nothing--weather, sports, weekend experiences or upcoming plans. To be honest, there was also a fair amount of gossip. There's always office gossip. Every time you get a group of people together, they start to talk, and most times, they eventually end up talking about each other. That's just human nature.
Sure, we act shocked and try to appear above it all, but deep down, we all love dirt. We get a thrill out of the juicy tidbits that get traded around the water coolers and break rooms. We hunger for information and entertainment, especially when we're bored or need a distraction. And distractions often arise unexpectedly, sometimes when we least expect them.
It was Pierre who launched the first strike. I call him Pierre, for his almost daily habit of starting the workday with a croissant and a cup of French roast coffee. And like most Frenchmen, Pierre was passionate and had definite opinions that he voiced freely. In this case, he stated, "That's not a song. It's just music."
At first, we were confused by the statement. Pierre elaborated, "We're listening to music, not a song."
I needed clarification, "Isn't a song the same thing as music?"
Pierre answered, "No. A song is type of music, but not all music can be called songs. A song has to have words."
At this point, Tex joined in, "It's true. Without lyrics, it's just music." I call him Tex because of his penchant for wearing cowboy boots and for wearing a custom made cowboy hat as part of his daily wear. Tex continued, "You need lyrics to make a song. Without lyrics, it's just a melody, a tune, not a song."
I didn't agree, and if truth be told, it didn't matter much to me how each person defined music or a song. But I felt the urge to play devil's advocate, so I said, "A song doesn't need to have words. It only needs to communicate a message or feeling."
Pierre countered, "You need words to communicate."
I replied, "Not necessarily. You can communicate without words; using facial expressions or even just sighing, or groaning, or grunting expresses what we feel."
Buddy jumped in, "And whistling, humming, or even the scatting jazz singers do counts as communication, as expressions, which count as parts of the song they are singing."
"But that's just it," countered Tex, "A song needs to be sung!"
So I answered, "A song is a creation, an expression that's made from various instruments or implements. And the human voice is an instrument for communication and expression. I argue that even clapping hands or stomping feet can be considered musical instruments that create songs the way a guitar, or piano, or drum emits sounds when they are played by human hands."
Pierre interjected, "If you're going to argue that using the human body as a musical instrument means the noises we make count as songs, does that mean arm pit farting and passing gas count as music?"
"Only if they communicate a message or express thoughts or feelings!", I quickly replied.
That got us all chuckling.
Then Tex said, "If a song is meant to communicate or express a thought or feeling, then wouldn't you need words to relay that message or feeling? Therefore, you need words to make a song a song! Otherwise, if you can't say or sing it clearly, and if no one can understand what you're singing, then you're not communicating or expressing anything. You're just making noise, like a babbling brook or tin can rolling down a hill, making sound that has no meaning. No meaning means it's not a song, just noise."
Buddy said, "Just because we can't understand the expressions or interpret the sounds or message does not mean it's just noise. There are foreign songs we don't understand. There are tribes who use their noses to make flute music! Not to mention other people who use clicks and whistles to communicate, their version of singing. We may not understand them or what they're expressing, but that does not take away from the fact that they are communicating, and their songs are as valid as all other forms of songs that express feelings and thoughts and messages."
Pierre replied, "But that's just it. If it's about communication and expression, and we are to count whistles and clicks as ways to communicate. Wouldn't that mean that in terms of language, those whistles and clicks are considered words? Words are used to communicate a message or express thoughts and feelings. Therefore, I reiterate, you need words to make a song. Lyrics are the words in the song. Without lyrics, it's not a song, just music, a melody, a tune. Without words, it's not a language, it's not a message or expression."
Pierre was on a roll. He closed his argument confidently by declaring, "Words make a song a song! Otherwise, it's just a tune! You can't have a song without words! If you don't use words, then you aren't singing a song! You can't sing a song without words!"
To which I replied, "Tell that to the birds and whales!"