Stuff that occurs to me

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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Sunday, 17 November 2013

The world is divided into people who listen to song lyrics and people who don't

I've been quite intrigued while investigating (well, 'surfing' web forums really) the differences in how people listen to songs. Ages ago a friend and I joked that we should divide the world into people who do or don't listen to song lyrics. This happened after he'd had a conversation with this then girlfriend who couldn't understand that while he knew the lyrics to songs they didn't have any particular deep meaning for him. I'm the same and really only know the lyrics for 'singing along' purposes, as an alternative to 'la la la'.

Thanks to this tweet, I recently went along to hear an event celebrating the work of the lyricist Don Black - it'll be broadcast on the BBC around Christmas. For me it was definitely one of the more unusual nights out I've ever been to. I've never been much into musicals or show tunes so it was rather fascinating to hear them belted out by popular singers with lots of sparkle. Some of the tunes were very familiar though I'd have to confess I'd not paid much attention to the words but it was pretty interesting hearing Don talk about how he plays with words and constructs a lyric.

My response to tunes (whether or not they have lyrics) is remarkably similar to Peter Griffin of Family Guy, here singing a piece of music from one of the Indiana Jones films ;)

I've no idea why people do or don't listen to lyrics - I'm not much of a fan of poetry either (it seems a very inefficient way to transmit information, though I tolerate it well enough if it rhymes or is funny) and have never quite been able to suspend disbelief when people burst into songs during musical films.

Presumably it's not a binary thing but I'm definitely in the 'ignore lyrics' camp and have been amused to read others stories of how they came to the realisation that they listen to music in quite a different way from those around them.

"I almost never listen to lyrics, even in songs I love. I prefer instrumental music in almost all cases. Good lyrics do not suddenly make bad music "good." But, good music with bad lyrics is fine with me - I probably wouldn't even notice that the lyrics are "bad" because I just simply don't care.

My wife is always talking about how great such and such song is... when I comment that I don't think it is anything special, she tries to convince me of how deep the meaning is, etc. After 12 years, I think she is finally starting to figure out that I just don't hear words in songs.

A couple of friends of mine were trying to convince me how great Elvis Costello is. I said I just don't like him, he does nothing for me. After forcing me to listen to a whole CD, they were baffled that I still didn't like it - "You don't love the poetry, the storytelling!?" My reply - "You said these were great songs, not great poems. I read poems, I don't listen to them."

People clearly have different priorities when it comes to musical enjoyment. Some people ONLY listen to lyrics and couldn't care less about the music. And they think we are crazy for not hearing the lyrics." SamsDaddy on The Gear Page forum
This post "Why Americans don't like jazz", from Dyske Suematru, is rather interesting as it suggests an aspect of language. He is Japanese and pointed out that "...if you don’t speak English, any songs written in English are instrumental music. Singers turn into just another musical instrument."
"This means that most non-English speakers grow up listening to a lot of instrumental music. In Japan, I would say, it constitutes about half of what people listen to. When they are listening to Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears, they have very little understanding of what their songs are about. In this sense, their ears are trained to listen to and enjoy instrumental music, which explains why Jazz is still so popular in Japan."
Although this sounds perfectly reasonable it certainly doesn't account for the fact that while I listen to music in precisely this way... I've really never liked any jazz music that I've heard (yet).

The only time I've ever really tried to learn lyrics are for two songs in Welsh, so that I can sing along with them as I like the way they sound. One is 'Lisa Lan' (lyrics) which I first heard in the film Crash, arranged by the film's composer Mark Isham, there's also a nice version sung by Cerys Matthews. Another is 'Gwn mi wn' (lyrics) sung by Gruff Rhys - I've given up trying to pronounce most of that!

Back to the post by Dyske:
"My wife and I have always known how differently we listen to music. I tend to entirely ignore lyrics, while she tends to entirely ignore music. We are the two opposite ends of the spectrum in this sense, and it appears that my wife’s side is more common. Many of my friends think that I have a peculiar, or plain bad, taste for music. Whenever I say I like this song or that song, they look at me like I am crazy. Then they go on to explain why it is bad, and I realize that they are referring to the lyrics, not to the music. I then pay attention to the lyrics for the first time, and realize that they are right. The opposite happens often too where many of my friends love a particular song, and I can’t understand what’s good about it until I pay attention to the lyrics."
This pretty much describes me.

Fifteen years after hearing a song by Lamb at a party but not remembering what it was called I finally discovered it was 'Lusty'. I was intrigued by the sampled melody and the rhythm and was delighted to find it on YouTube and listen to it a few times. It was only when I watched one of the videos for the song, that had the lyrics, that I noticed it's a little bit saucy. This had passed me by despite several listens, but of course having now clocked the lyrics I can't unhear them ;)

Here's the version with the lyrics.

Other things I've found from googling things like "I don't listen to song lyrics"
I don't listen to song lyrics (forum posts):

Does anyone else not listen to lyrics in music?

Musicians listen to music differently than other people


  1. Great article!

    Personally I'm one of those people who listen only to the instrumental aspect of a song. Ever since I was young, I was unable to really hear or pay attention to the lyrics; if i made a conscious effort to listen to the lyrics I would lose the enjoyment of the atmosphere and harmonies created by the instruments. I can recall listening to one particular song all summer and I couldn't remember any of the lyrics.

    I guess its personal taste but I just see the lyrics as another instrument in the music, if the person singing the song isn't very good at singing, I cringe.I don't mean to be the judge of singing proficiency, but I question some artists these days, try listening to Fetty Wap from a vocal standpoint, bad would be a gross understatement.

  2. Funny thing is that I write literary fiction and poetry, but I never listen to the lyrics in music. I'm almost oblivious to anything but the music!


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