I got an email from a listener the other day (recently; a few days ago) about listening to song lyrics (words) in English. His question was why, even after listening to English for many years, he was still having problems understanding the words of popular American songs.
This is a common question among language learners. The best answer I have is this: I am a native speaker of English and I, too, have difficulty understanding lyrics sometimes!
I remember teaching a university language class back in 1992 or 1993, and telling my students one day about one of my favorite songs then playing on the radio. I didn’t know the name of the song, but I told them that the first few lines (phrases or sentences) went something like “I get no sprouts/But I get up again.” (Sprouts, commonly called Brussels sprouts, is a green vegetable used in salads.)
My students got a big kick out of that (found it funny; laughed at it), because, you see, the actual words to the song are “I get knocked down/But I get up again.” (To get knocked down means to be pushed down to the ground, usually by being hit by another person.) I had misheard (heard incorrectly or wrongly) the lyrics. (The song is by the British group, Chumbawamba, entitled (with the name) “I Get Knocked Down.”)
Lyrics are difficult to understand because they often have weird or unusual pronunciations, especially when singers are singing quickly. For that reason alone, you should never judge your English based on whether or not you can understand song lyrics.
Mishearing lyrics is so common that there are websites devoted to (focused on) funny examples of them. Here are a few:
- The Beatles, “I Saw Her Standing There”:
Original: And the way she looked was way beyond compare (something you could not compare anything else with).
Misheard: And the way she shook (moved quickly) her wavy (not straight) armpit (hair under your arm) hair.
- Michael Jackson, “Beat It”:
Original: Just beat it (beat it), beat it (beat it)/No one wants to be defeated (lose).
Misheard: Just beat it (beat it), beat it (beat it)/No one wants to be deleted (eliminate or remove something).
- Elton John, “Candle in the Wind”:
Original: You lived your life like a candle in the wind.
Misheard: You lived your life like a sandal (type of shoe) in a bin (large bucket or container).
As you can see, even native speakers have problems understanding the words to a song!
P.S. THANK YOU to all who gave me their warm birthday greetings here on the blog and via (by) email! It’s great to be 29 again…and again…and again.
Photo credit: The Beatles, Wikipedia PD
Thanks, that’s a very interesting and cognitive article.
Hi everybody and thanks Jeff for this exposition about English lyrics .If native speakers have problems ,there’s no doubts that we learners have even major problems
to try understanding what the song told us.Even in my own language ,we have similar problems .It’s really funny ,most of the time we have to make up new lyrics that
gives the song a laughable new meaning ,that can affect other people to make them feeling a sense of nonsense if we sing it loudly. Jejejejejeje….Thanks Jeff
You rigth, Jeff. Everybody can consider his own native language. I’m sure ther are popular songs in our languages, wich have incomprehensible phrases. There is polular song in Poland, which invokes Mahalia Jackson, like:
“Mahalia in singing on radio”. Most of Poles hear “Natalia” instead of “Mahalia”. Natalia is Polish verion of Natalie and of course everybody heard name “Natalia”, but only a few – Mahalia. By the way, Jeff, what obout Mahalia Jackson in your famous Americans series in “English Cafe”?
Hi! I do not understand the song lyrics, too. Just the words which I know them very well or sung very clearly.
But I can find the lyrics on You Tube, and …sometimes it is not so difficult to translate them.
If I like a song very much I can imagine the words, the feelings…
Maybe it’s better so.
The words sometimes can hurt you.
You said it
U couldn’t be more right!!
I support your analyzing about Lyrics. It is Absolutly the case.
I myself,sometimes mishear the lyrics of songs.
Let me tell you sth , it is totally common among native speakers that they misunderstand rather mishear the lyrics.
A very good example of it is the songs written and sung by a very popular and highly credited band : “King of Leons.”
Man , they are totally hard to understand. I mean it is almost impossible to get the lines in their songs unless u follow along the lyrics.
I have some native-speaker friends mostly highly educated. One of them even is a professional writer still they can’t understand the lyrics much less mishear. They just hum the music along.
Don’t beat yourself my friend. And never ever judge urself based on musical comprehension.
And ,never try to learn English through listening to music.
Nothing defines a culture better than its language. Music is a part of a culture not its language itself.
Jeff ,last time I checked you were 25!!??:) what gives ?:)
Hi! Very funny the lesson “Fad Dieting”. First I checked the words “fad” and “fade”.
Interesting the phrase “I’m not popping pills.” I know about pop music, pop corn…in no one of my English dictionaries I can find this meaning.
I know the phrase “She is hot.” but not and “She doesn’t look so hot.”
Hi! May I say a joke regarding the diet? (We say “dieta”).
A very fat woman went to see a doctor and she asked him what she should do in order to lose weight.
The doctor said she must eat lean meat, toast and fruit.
The patient asked the doctor: “Before meals, Doctor, or after?”
I already talked to myself about that, the mere fact that even in French I don’t understand half songs 🙂 so don’t judge yourself listening englsih songs !!
Hi every body
I am back
Dear Jeff alongside your deep knowledge you posses in teaching English, I always think of you as an artist. you know better than every one how turn a hard, boring process of learning a language into a fascinating joyous one.
god bless your soul
I hope you live 11111129 years,
though you are for ever alive in our heart
I think mishearing is a part of listening to songs. In fact, if you play the song for the singer of the song, he or she may mishear lyrics , too!!!
In my mother tongue, I sometimes have trouble understanding lyrics. I think some of our singers, in my country, change the song only because of the music of the song.
However, I enjoy listening to it.
have a good time, bye
I wonder what is the relation between the photo and the text in this post.
The Arrow and the Song
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet (1807 – 1882)
“I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so knee and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterword, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.”
Very nice poem. Thank you.
Happy Birthday Jeff, i know a little later, but it´s come from Heart.
and thanks for your great job here in the podcast.
I feel relieved for not being the only one that has trouble understanding lyrics. I used to feel awful when friend asked me to translate songs and I couldn´t do it properly.
Thank you for this honest account of mishearing a song.
I thought “I get no sprouts” and “I get knocked down” are very different. How could it happen? So I searched the internet and found the song from YouTube. You are absolutely right, I heard “I get no sprouts” as well.
In fact some people suggest learning a foreign language from songs. But so often the sound of words in a song are changed to suit the music. I don’t think people can learn a foreign language properly from songs.
The misheard lyrics examples about Beatles, Michael Jackson and Elton John’s songs can’t be true, can they?
By the way, thanks for the Beatles photo. I learned a lot about John Lennon and his Japanese wife Yoko after watching a documentary about them last year.
I liked him and all his music.
The image out up there Is the image of the popular music band named “Bettels ” in 60is.
The post is all about music and lyrics
So ,it is relevant
Hi! I know about King Kong but I am realizing that I did not see the movie or I forgot.
Anyway I am sure that I didn’t see the 2005 remake.
So I watched with pleasure all King Kong movie clips on You Tube.
Indeed, special effects, maybe too “special” in “Giant Bugs Attack” or “Human Sacrifice”.
I like very much “Kong Battles with Dinosaurs” clip.
Poor girl…thrown from all sides like in our life, but someone sometimes can save you…
And “The Fall of Kong”…his and her last looks…exciting.
Hi! Thank you for the new phrases (at least to me):
– “You’ve lost your bleeping mind!” and the word “the bleep”;
– out of hand;
– soft money and a smear campaign;
– Step aside!
– He’s an Einstein!
It is tru sometimes I have a lot of problems trying to understand somo lyrics, but the problem is the way they change the sound just for make the phase more beautiful or something