Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Introduction


Note: Originally posted June 6, 2014 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

This is part of a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

This post is an introduction to the third factor in the creation of Cohen’s songs: Artistic Design.

The first section of this series, The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1 & Part 2, established the primary theme of Leonard Cohen’s songs: embracing the human predicament. The second, Self-Examination and Self-Revelation In Leonard Cohen’s Music, described Cohen’s uniquely acute, judgment-free observations of his inner life as the content for depicting that theme. But theme and pertinent content do not constitute a song any more than steel and concrete along with the need to cross a river constitute a bridge. Building a bridge or a song requires the application of art, planning, and skill to transform the raw material into the final product. Cohen puts this notion more poetically:

 A cry of pain in itself is just that. It can affect you or you can turn away from it. But a piece of work that treats the experience that produced the cry of pain is a different matter altogether. The cry is transformed, alchemised, by the work by a certain objectivity which doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form. That’s the difference between life and art.1

Just pure confession I never felt was really interesting. But confession filtered through a tradition of skill and hard work is interesting to me. 2

The Singer-Songwriter’s Obligation

Cohen makes it clear that a singer with a serious message3 has an obligation not only to impart that message but also to impart it effectively – through the song’s artistry:

I think that a decent man who has discovered valuable secrets is under some obligation to share them. But I think that the technique of sharing them is a great study. And there are great masters who know how to impact the secrets they’ve learned. I think that often I’ve made mistakes, that I’ve tried to communicate my secrets. Secrets are very, very prosaic in a sense, you know, it’s like how to light someone’s cigarette or how not to hurt someone or how not to hurt yourself. I think these are how to be strong; these are really the secrets, aren’t they? Now, you can reveal secrets in many ways. One way is to say this is the secret I have discovered. I think that this way is often less successful because when that certain kind of conscious creative mind brings itself to bear on this information, it distorts it, it makes it very inaccessible. Sometimes it’s just in the voice, sometimes just in the style, in the length of the paragraph; it’s in the tone, rather than in the message.4

And art is necessary to render Cohen’s songs comprehensible to the audience:

 [My work] may not be always easy to understand, but it is easy to embrace5

People ask what does that song, Suzanne, really mean? The people who lay back and are ravished by the song know exactly what it means.6

It’s the virtuosity of a song, after all, that ravishes the listener.

Art As A Means To Reach & Persuade An Audience

It is worth noting that literary and songwriting devices produce pragmatic, measurable psychological results on the listener. There are convincing scientific studies, for example, demonstrating the rhyme-as-reason effect—a cognitive bias which results in an idea being judged more accurate or truthful when written in rhyme (e.g., “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”).7 Rhymes have also been shown to evoke imagery more quickly than semantic associations and abet some categories of recall.8 Similarly, other figures of speech such as alliteration, stanza formats, meter, assonance, etc. may benefit the transmission of a message. While an analysis of Cohen’s work vis-à-vis learning theory and methods of persuasion is beyond the scope of this essay, it is helpful to keep in mind that certain aesthetics appear to enhance the effectiveness of at least some parameters of communication.

Although it’s doubtful Cohen was referring to such specific scientific hypotheses, he intuitively alludes to an analogous, metaphysical manifestation of these concepts when he speaks of “that special magic that makes a song move from lip to lip.”9

The chief distinction, in fact, Cohen makes between the art of poetry and the art of song is in the ability of the latter to reach a greater proportion of the population:

It’s a very good thing that poetry is not popular. It’s marvelous to renew language with secret work, not popular work. It’s very important to keep that difference between songs and poetry. Songs are wonderful, there is poetry in them. Poetry contains the song’s spirit. But the working, the practical aspects of poetry occur in a secret room behind a veil.10

The Canadian singer-songwriter coveys the same sentiment in condensed form when he responds to the query, “Why do poets become songwriters?”

Well, if you want to show off, like I did, you go for the widest audience possible11

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Sacred Mechanics

Credit Due Department: Photo By Rama (Own work) [CeCILL or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Suffering For Fan And Profit – The Return Of Leonard Cohen by Mick Brown. Sounds: July 3 1976, Accessed 26 April 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles []
  2. ‘I’m Blessed With A Certain Amnesia’ by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: July 9, 2009. Accessed 30 April 2014. []
  3. “Message” is used here in its most general and, indeed, ambiguous sense. Cohen rails against songs that are didactic and denies that he knows what the themes of his songs are, but it is evident that his musical works are tasked with conveying an idea, a concept, a feeling, … to the listener. I’ve chosen “message” to indicate that which is to be conveyed in his songs. []
  4. An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel: Winter 1969. []
  5. Love Me, Love My Gun Barrel by Graham Lock. New Musical Express: February 23, 1980. []
  6. Interview / Leonard Cohen By Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld []
  7. McGlone, M. S.; J. Tofighbakhsh (2000). Birds Of A Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme As Reason In Aphorisms. Psychological Science 11 (5): 424–428. []
  8. Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes by David C. Rubin. Oxford University Press: Mar 27, 1995. []
  9. An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel: Winter 1969. []
  10. Cercle de Minuit – Michel Field, Interviewer. Broadcast by France 2: December 1992. []
  11. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. []