25th September 2014

Opinion: Can you fully appreciate a song without understanding the lyrics?

Elizabeth Gibson shares her appreciation of foreign language songs

As a languages student who keeps a music blog, I have naturally come across plenty of foreign-language songs. Many of my favourite songs are not sung in English. Some I adored before I had any idea what they meant. That got me thinking, just how important is it that we understand a song’s lyrics? An instrumental piece is beautiful without words because that’s how it was designed to be. But if a writer chooses to have lyrics, must we understand them to really connect with the song?

My first experience with foreign music was listening to French club songs when I was little. Whereas we were supposed to listen to the songs one by one, as we studied the relevant vocab, my brother and I listened to the entire CD over and over. We understood some of the lyrics but certainly not all of them. That didn’t matter. It was all about the music – and I think we also liked the sound of the French words, even without knowing their meaning.

At college I would listen to pop and rock songs in a wide range of languages, some of which I couldn’t understand a word of. I never felt deprived. I sometimes wondered what the lyrics meant and would look them up but mainly I was happy to just enjoy the song. Once I found the English lyrics to a song sung in Hebrew that I liked. I was glad I found them because they were beautiful. However, listening to the song afterwards, I wouldn’t hear the English lyrics in my head, and if I tried to overlay them it felt false. It was as though the lyrics and the rest of the song had come apart in my head and were wonderful as separate entities but just didn’t go together. And that kind of makes sense—why should English translation lyrics go with a non-English original song? It wasn’t intended to be in English.

I have realised that the number one factor in enjoying a song for me is not the music and is not the lyrics. There is a third element: the performance. I loved French ballads by Jean-Jacques Goldman before I could fully understand them because I was so touched by the love with which he sang. I enjoyed Spanish protest songs because I could hear the anger and determination as clearly as if they were in English. I love Chinese music. My Chinese isn’t fluent but the Chinese are so expressive—a happy song will be performed with real joy, a sad song with heart-aching longing. A love song with tangible desire.

In reflection, I think it is perfectly possible to understand and appreciate a song without understanding its lyrics—if the performer really means what they sing. Honesty and raw emotion do not need translating, and they are what really shapes a performance, in the studio or live. I look forward to discovering many new songs from all around the world.

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