I Hear What You’re Singing (I Just Don’t Know What It Means)

Frank Oteri’s column on text in music caused me to reflect on how I listen to those things. For me, narration is probably the only time that I will naturally absorb text in music. When listening to song, in English or any other language, whether aria, lied, ballad, or rap, I simply don’t process the text for meaning but merely for sound.

I suspect that perhaps this is an ingrained habit coming from my earliest musical experiences. One of the first gifts I received was, I am told, a record player, and from a very young age, my parents regaled me with music in response to my apparent enthusiasms—first world music and folks songs from Japan, Turkey, Spain, and other distant locales, all sung in the native languages; symphonic music from the likes of Beethoven and Brahms (I was positively addicted to the Hungarian Dances, especially number 5, listening for hours), Bach oratoria, and later, at the age of six or so, Puccini operas such as Tosca and Turandot. In short, I listened to a lot of vocal music, but virtually none of it in a language I could understand. Now, my own cracker-barrel neuro-psychological analysis—Oliver Sacks has yet to ring in on my case—has me believe that this has led to a kind of musical aphasia, where I hear the sounds of text and even hear and understand individual words or phrases of text (assuming they are in one of the few languages I speak), but I simply don’t give any priority to meaning in the overall experience. The words are figuratively but truly lost on me. Even today, the “Ode to Joy” might as well be the “Ode to Pastrami.”

I can reverse the process and concentrate on the words when I choose—otherwise I could never enjoy a Cole Porter song, or Rzewski’s seminal text pieces, or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” all of which I do—but it does, regrettably, come at some expense to taking in the music.

But don’t get me wrong. I love vocal music. I love song. I love pieces for multiple voices, choral music, opera, oratorio, work songs, gospel, chant, qawalli et al. And people who know my music know that I often use voice as a primary musical element.

In the past, younger and a bit arrogant, I smugly rationalized that I was hearing more of the music than those people who could recite the lyrics to a song we both were listening to. Now older (but leaving any assessment of my arrogance for another day), I do feel some regret, as I clearly am missing part of the overall artistic experience when listening to pieces that use text. I wonder if I am alone in this, or if other people might listen the same way as I. Hello. Are you a friend of Bill W.’s? I’d be most keen to hear from any of you about how you listen.

5 thoughts on “I Hear What You’re Singing (I Just Don’t Know What It Means)

  1. JJeffers

    Words to me are extremely important. I can’t stand all the cliches in popular music that are on the radio today, especially the rock songs. I also can’t stand it when the words to an aria or any other art song are distorted to warble-garble from vibrato. It’s maddening! Even if the piece is in a language I don’t understand, which it usually is, at least I might be able to discern *some* meaning if the words were clear.

    I too have written a number of vocal works especially songs for soprano or alto, and really prize a singer who doesn’t have a ton of vibrato.

    Anyway, words make or break a piece for me. If I can’t understand the words because of language, I would like to hear the syllables. I really believe the nature of the way each word is formed in the mouth gives the note its own timbre, and from years of choral singing I know it to be true. Not to mention the meaning of the words themselves. I think each person who hears the words and understands them can take different meanings very easily, unless the text is extremely straightforward. I think it’s important in a piece that the audience be able to understand the text if it is in their language, and presents a coherent thought. Ok, don’t want to ramble on too much, you get the point.

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  2. Colin Holter

    Are you a friend of Bill W.’s?

    William Walton’s? Sure, I guess so. About five years ago I took part in a performance of his Façade, a piece for chamber ensemble and speed-talker with text by Edith Sitwell.

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  3. Trevor

    I often find that knowing the text to something actively takes away from my enjoyment of a piece of music, especially with opera. Case in point would be Dies Bildnis from the Magic Flute – beautiful aria, especially if sung by a good tenor; you’d swear it had all the depth and meaning in the world from the music. But the lyrics are about the bland hero falling in love with a small hand drawn picture of a woman he has never met. Too much disbelief to be suspended, too stupid in concept to be ignored.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that really good text is ever served well by music – it doesn’t need the help, and the music itself becomes distracting. The best texts, I think, are those that aren’t particularly interesting on their own, but aren’t completely inane either. Then there’s something that music can add to them to create a greater meaning.

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  4. JJeffers

    Hmph
    That you find the substance of that aria dull and inane is entirely *your* opinion. Sounds kind of romantic to me, and I’m not afraid to say it!

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  5. JJeffers

    Of Course
    In the context of The Magic Flute it is of course silly (at least to us today). I saw a performance with some arias in english and some in german, and I can’t say the english added an awful lot to my enjoyment of the music but at least I had an idea of what it was about, and that changed how I perceived the song as a whole.

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