are incomprehensible song lyrics a semi-universal phenomenon?

Many american songs contain lyrics that are either easily misunderstood, or outright impossible to understand.

Is this a common occurrence in other languages? Or is it a result of our habit of constantly borrowing words from other languages?

In a garden of Eden baby!

No Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom.

Just some good ole songwriters
Writing them songs
Beats all you ever saw
Writing unintelligle crap
Since the day they was born

Twisting those words
the only way they know how
But that’s just a little bit more than rhyming will allow

Yes: When I hear a song sung in French or Italian or Russian, I find it outright impossible to understand.


Suz me while I kiss this guy!

Slow talking Walter, fire engine guy!

Part of the fun is gradually learning the lyrics over time. They don’t like to make it too easy. That and focusing more on the music, the melody and the sound, and how they all interact rather than focusing a lot on making the lyrics intelligible on first listen. Unless you’re Tom Lerher or Weird Al, the lyrical content is not the main focus of the music.

Moved to Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

I don’t know how true it is, but I’ve been told that the fact that Chinese is a tonal language makes lyrics very difficult to understand.

You can usually understand the lyrics if you listen carefully and are attuned to lyrics. I rarely have problems (other than the odd word here and there).

But I grew up listening to Broadway showtunes, where you have to learn how to pick up the lyrics on the fly, so I hear lyrics first thing. Most other people listen to the melody or the beat, and only get the lyrics later.

I remember years ago when someone complained about Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” saying she listened to it several times and really loved it, until, after a few more times listening, she realized there was a line putting down Catholic girls. I got that the first time I heard it.

It’s not a matter of which language, it’s just a result of the laws of physics.
When you speak in a regular conversation, you move air out of your mouth , right? Every quarter of a second or so, another word comes out of your mouth and moves to your listener’s ears at a steady pace.

But when you sing, you move air differently—you elongate the vowels, stretch entire words for several seconds, etc.
So naturally, everything sounds different when sung–in any language.

When you speak , there is no background noise.
But with singing…the whole point is to add background “noise”–ie. the instruments. Which naturally interferes with the words.

I get the impression that in musical theater, there is an emphasis on enunciating the lyrics clearly. I remember, vaguely, seeing a show (American Idol, maybe?) in which someone with a musical theater background was trying to transition to singing rock/pop songs. They were told they had to slur the lyrics.

Part of it is that poets/lyricists love to hide their meaning behind metaphors and analogies that seem transparent to the writer who, after all, knew what she meant all along. Lay a few instrumental tracks on top of the singer, and we start mis-hearing things to make it worse.

I guess there’s no harm in a fan hearing Carly Simon sing, “You’re Cobain, I bet you think this song is about Jews.” Even if you heard every word correctly, you might resent Simon dodging questions about the song for decades.

Part of it is just sloppy singing. If you hear a song 2 dozen times, and you still have no idea what that one line is, it’s not your fault. It’s the singer’s fault. (I’m lookin’ at you, Manfred Mann.)

Don’t look at Manfred; he’s not the singer. Chris Thompson is the “wrapped up like a douche” guy.

There are two kinds of “incomprehensibility.” There’s the kind where you can’t make out the words the singer is singing, either because the singer isn’t enunciating clearly or you’re not listening carefully or the instruments are making the vocals hard to hear or something like that. And there’s the kind where you know what the individual words are (or have a lyrics sheet in front of you) but can’t make sense of them.

I think, but am not sure, that it is exclusively the first kind that the OP is asking about. It’s the kind that most, but not all, the replies seem to be addressing. Though they are at least a little bit related: it’s probably easier to understand what the words are if they fit together in a way that makes immediate, obvious sense.

The OP must have listened to “Louie Louie” again.

Either that or couldn’t find the bathroom on the right.

Still not really addressing the OP’s question.

It would be very interesting to know how easy to understand say K-Pop or Norwegian Death Metal bands are to native language speakers. But there is little doubt that across the range of musical styles there is a big variation in intelligibility.

Opera isn’t a good start. This changes over time as the styles change. But modern opera places a much greater emphasis on musical acrobatics than intelligibility. Given the plots are universally ridiculous and it is just a matter of waiting to find out in which particular manner the heroine dies
the lyrics don’t matter all that much. Comic opera is different of course. You need to get the joke, no matter how lame.

Some lyrics are themselves just plain odd anyway. Harking back to well known rock and roll. Smoke on the Water. Who would know what “With a few red lights and a few old beds” meant? Or indeed who Funky Claude was? The story and lyrics make perfect sense, but I doubt the millions of kids playing air guitar with the sound up loud had any clue back then.

I mention Deep Purple because that was my introduction to understanding sung rock and roll lyrics. The friend of mine that introduced me to the band told me that you soon got used to understanding them. And he was right. Until then I had grown up with my parent’s record collection, and to me songs were always as comprehensible as Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady.

Straight down the line pop songs always seem to have highly comprehensible lyrics. Lets the average punter sing along. Even if the lyrics still don’t make sense. (But how many ways can you write a soppy love song anyway?)

A lot of K-Pop songs alternate between Korean and English, and seem to be equal-opportunity offenders. Sometimes, the Korean bits seem–to me, anyway-- to have English mondegreens:
“Your mom, she wanted a boy.” --I Don’t Care, 2NE1
“Me alone, Korean palindrome.” --Gangnam Style, Psy