Have you ever listened to a song in which the singer slurs a phrase to the point that the words either sound like something that doesn’t make sense, or become altogether unintelligible? Think of the moment of revelation that comes when you finally discover what is really being said; the feeling you may have experienced upon learning that Jimi Hendrix wasn’t excusing himself to kiss guys. Now, imagine that feeling multiplied many times over . . . an entire incomprehensible song.
I listen to a lot of music by European bands, so I frequently come across songs with lyrics that are composed in foreign languages—Norwegian, German, Gaelic, what have you. It never used to bother me that I couldn’t understand the words because I could still enjoy the music. One could argue that if I really cared about the music I would look up all the lyrics to find out what they mean in English. I have done, actually, for a few songs that grace my speakers more often than others, but realistically, there are just far too many and I haven’t the time. Lyrics can, however, add an important element to a song, and sometimes we may not realize it until we find out what we’re missing.
While going through my music collection recently, I found a text file that I had completely forgotten about, buried in the depths of countless hierarchical folders. It contained all the lyrics for one particular album, as well as translations of the songs on that album that weren’t in English. After reading through one of them, I was surprised to discover what it was actually about, and it was strange knowing that I would never again listen to that song the same way. I have listened to it for years, but now, every time I hear it I’ll be thinking about the story of Young Raymond, who slew seven giants on a seashore and beheaded an emperor. Much different from what the melody alone had me imagining.
Reading those lyrics reminded me of something similar that had happened not too long before. A colleague had brought some of her favourite music to work for us to listen to. It was a foreign band that I had heard only once or twice before, so it was relatively unfamiliar. A few songs went by, and then midway through one track she turned to me and, knowing that I didn’t understand the words, proceeded to explain how although the song sounded happy and festive, the lyrics added a very sombre, depressing quality. The story is sung from the point of view of a boy standing on a gallows. He sings of his love for a girl who is married to a horrible man who verbally abuses her and threatens her with physical harm. One night when the girl’s husband was stumbling home drunk, the boy crept up and killed him. All the while, of course, the music is bouncing blissfully along as the boy, now awaiting his execution, is exclaiming that he doesn’t regret what he did and hopes that the girl will one day think of him as the boy who died for her.
That song is a great example of the point I’m trying to illustrate, simply due to the degree of contrast between the tones created by the music and the words. The two elements of the song induce conflicting feelings, one shattering the other, making for a unique—but fitting—emotional contradiction. Without comprehension of the lyrics, the effect that so well causes this song to stand out is lost.
So is it bad to listen to music when you don’t understand the language of the lyrics? Absolutely not! Just keep in mind that there might be an aspect to the song that you’re missing out on.
For those who are interested, the two songs I mentioned are the following (via YouTube):
“Ramund Hin Unge” by Týr
“Denk An Mich” by Schandmaul
On a side note, I believe that the reason the music of “Denk An Mich” is happy while the lyrics are sad is because of the point of view. The story is being told in first person, and the boy believes that he’s done a good thing freeing the girl from a life of unhappiness. If it were in third person the music would probably be cheerless as well, because from an onlooker’s point of view it is an entirely sorrowful situation.
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