Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm wondering if native speakers understand all the words in songs? For me it is very very difficult, as I can understand only 30% of words and phrases in songs usually. While listening to people's conversations (e.g. podcasts) I understand much more, perhaps about 80%.

This was the first part of the question. The second part involves an example. Listen to this great song from Nick Cave. Do native speakers really understand all the words in this song? I mean without looking at lyrics. Is it possible? He sings very fast and there's no spaces and pauses between words, so I mostly "hear" separated words, and the rest of song is just some kind of Abracadabra.

Update

Let me explain why this question is not off-topic. It's closely related to English because in my native language (which is Russian) we always understand all the word in songs, I mean we understand more than 99% of words all the time. And I was wondering is my English so bad that I can't fully understand all the words in English, or is it just a feature of English language.

share|improve this question
1  
Other Answers seem keen to show their familiarity with the neolgism mondegreen, but I don't think that word is often applied to mishearings in conversation, poetry reading, etc. Well, I don't think it's often used at all, in fact. The point is even native speakers often don't catch every word in an utterance, and even if they do, they may not actually understand very well. I'm sure this is common to all languages. Except computer languages, of course, where it's usually a big problem if the compiler doesn't understand what the programmer means. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 16:15
1  
As this question isn't specifically about English, I don't think it's on-topic for this site. –  Marthaª Apr 15 '11 at 16:37
1  
I find it's more than individually hearing each word, but often holding sounds in the buffer of your brain and waiting until a phrase jumps out and your brain retro-actively goes back and says, "oh, that word must have been such-and-such." Being familiar with those 'phrases' would obviously be more difficult for a non-native speaker. P.S. I got about 90% of what he was saying in that song. –  Sam Apr 15 '11 at 17:22
1  
@Sam: exactly. We don't hear word-by-word. Psycholinguistics is a large field all on its own! –  user1579 Apr 15 '11 at 17:25
1  
@downvoters Why my question have been closed? Corresponding to FAQ my question can't be off topic, because in FAQ it's clearly said that people can ask question on "problems encountered by people learning English" and "language usage". I've just asked about some feature of English language related to common problems understanding spoken English. –  Dmitry Lobanov Apr 15 '11 at 18:58
add comment

closed as off topic by psmears, kiamlaluno, Marthaª, MrHen, Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Apr 15 '11 at 17:54

Questions on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange are expected to relate to English language and usage within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

6 Answers

The word Mondegreen was coined to refer to the way English speakers mis-hear lyrics and interpret them as meaning something else. The classic example is from Jimi Hendrix: "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy."

A quick check with Google for "lyrics" will turn up scores of websites that list the words to songs, attesting that few speakers can catch all the words to the music they hear. This is most likely common across most languages.

share|improve this answer
1  
Wait, you mean The Brian Setzer Orchestra didn't record a song about a drunk driving baby whale? youtube.com/watch?v=TjNgkl5tuBc –  Kevin Apr 15 '11 at 16:12
add comment

Indeed they don't, and that is why mondegreens are more common in song lyrics than in other areas of English speech.

share|improve this answer
    
Notable exceptions--"Our father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name" and pullet surprise. –  ChrisO Apr 15 '11 at 17:44
add comment

Of course we don't. Think of The Beatles "I Am The Walrus".

Songwriters often write lyrics which they themselves understand at the time of writing, but which they know perfectly well few if any will understand when they hear the song later. And sometimes the songwriter forgets later what he meant when he wrote the words.

Not to mention some artists deliberately / carelessly / artistically make it difficult if not impossible to discern the actual words being sung.

There will be lots of reasons for all this, but one in particular is that if the words are vague, the hearer may impose his own understanding on the parts he can make out. Because that 'meaning' comes from within, he may thus find greater personal significance in a song, and thus like it better.

share|improve this answer
    
Do you mean understand the words or understand the meaning in I am the Walrus? How about Louie, Louie? –  Sam Apr 15 '11 at 17:18
    
I'm not sure exactly what the difference is between understanding words and understanding the meaning of words. But what I meant was most people can hear each word as sung, which are mostly not obscure. And it's often possible to ascribe 'meaning' to individual phrases or longer sections of the lyrics. But the song as a whole is an oft-quoted example of something with either non-existent or highly-subjective semantic content. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 17:41
    
Apropos Louie Louie, I think lyricist Richard Berry got a certain amount of flack for (possibly intended) sexual innuendo. But Chuck Berry seems to have gotten away with the (definitely intended) innuendo of My Ding-a-Ling. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 17:50
    
@FF, You mentioned I am the Walrus. What I meant was, I can hear the words, "See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly." but I have no clue what that means. Louie, Louie, for example, I can't tell what he's saying most of the time. –  Sam Apr 15 '11 at 19:12
    
@Sam: Ah, I see. I was mostly dealing with what I thought OP was asking about - whether English lyrics actually make sense to native speakers, not whether we can hear them unambiguously. But I must admit I still can't be certain of my interpretation even now OP has updated the Question to clarify. Meaning is indeed a slippery customer. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 19:34
show 1 more comment

I can't really answer your question from personal experience as I'm not a native English speaker either; but I can point out that the BBC comedy quiz program "Never Mind the Buzzcocks" used to have a round "Indecipherable Lyrics" in which the panelists were asked to figure out what the lyrics of a song are. (Of course, the program wasn't serious at all and the most indecipherable songs were selected.)

You can find some clips of the show on YouTube.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Of course the answer is no, songwriters often use language, idioms, and references that will only be caught by some of their audience.

However I listened to the song you linked to and I could easily make out all the words having just heard it for the first time and most of the reference made sense. The meaning of several expressions was lost on me, probably particular to the subculture targeted.

When you learn a language you have to train your ear about what to expect. It's more more difficult to catch everything if you are fighting double time to make sense out of it and aren't fully fluent. I do speak another language and know this from experience. Time and practice will allow you to understand more.

Also, the more you read, the more idioms and references you will learn to understand and pick up on.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I listened to the Nick Cave song you linked and only had a few issues the first time through. The second time through I got most of the rest. Only three or four times did I have to listen to a line over again a few times to understand the words, but I did get them.

I can see how the delivery would befuddle non-native speakers, though. To take just one example, he pronounces "dream" variously as "dreeyueem", "duhreeeeem", "duhraaaayyyyyumuh", etc. And that is one of the easy words to parse. Sometimes I can only identify a word or two in a line and have to infer the rest, but the inference is pretty clear and easy.

Others have mentioned a few cases of indistinct lyrics in mainstream songs, and I agree that there are some, but those are by far the exception and not the rule. Most songs I hear, if I listen closely I have no trouble understanding the lyrics. For example, I never thought Hendrix was singing anything but "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky." I was surprised when I discovered that there was any confusion about it at all.

Where I have trouble is in songs that are sung in various dialects of English. Take, for example, Desmond Dekker's "Israelites": I once played that song about 50 times in a row trying to parse all the words, and I'm still not certain of some of them.

I do notice that in the foreign languages I do understand, absolutely the hardest thing for me to parse is song lyrics. So at least you're not alone.

share|improve this answer
    
As a friend of mine once put it, "Singlish is a different language." Vowels in particular sound do not sound the way you expect when elongated for singing, so untrained singers sound very odd at times. –  user1579 Apr 15 '11 at 17:35
    
Re: Desmond Dekker's 'Israelites,' it features Jamaican dialect (e.g., "bresser" = breakfast) and thus requires annotated lyrics to decode. –  The Raven Apr 15 '11 at 17:49
    
@The Raven: The 'bresser' interpretation is a new one on me. It's generally transcribed as slaving for bread, sir. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 19:19
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.