Can you hear the lyrics to songs?: How your brain interprets sounds

samfloy~7 December 2019 /Random

Project Making Friends in Denmark took another step forward this week as I went for beers with a couple of Danes and ended up chatting, drinking and playing dice (common in Danish bars it seems) for several hours.

One topic we got onto was music.

I introduced them to Desert Island Discs which got us talking about what eight tracks we’d choose were we banished to a remote island for the rest of time.

What are they saying?

I said that when I listen to music I have to really concentrate to understand what’s going on.

It’s as if the words wash over me. I can sometimes decipher the odd word, but the song has to be really slow for me to then process the lyrics and derive any meaning from them.

For me, music is much more about the melody, rhythm, and beat of a song.

This probably explains why I enjoy music from West Africa*: it’s very melodic and, though I can get an impression of what a track is about, I wouldn’t be able to understand (literally) what was being said in any case.

Poetry to music

Dane 2 had a differing opinion.

For him, he could only enjoy music where he could listen and reflect on the lyrics.

This meant he felt inclined towards songs with deep meaning that touch him. For him, this meant folksy guitar ballad stuff, but also, interestingly, heavy metal.

Dane 1 felt he was somewhere in between, though instinctively picked out several tracks he’d have to include in his DID selection because of the lyrics.

What does the science say?

One theory I had is that because both Dane 1 and 2 could play the guitar and/ or piano, the musical part of their brain was used to subconsciously processing melodies.

As such, songs could be enjoyed on autopilot by the musical part of their brain, and then proceed to the “language interpretation” part to greater additional meaning.

In mine (can’t play an instrument) my brain capacity is taken up focusing on the melodies because it’s not attuned to “automatically” doing, for example, the dual actions of multi-tasking on playing the guitar and singing.

I googled it to see how the theory holds up…

**pause for Google search**
… there doesn’t seem to be too much:

  1. New Scientist article saying music and lyrics split up and take different pathways in the brain
  2. Reddit thread from people saying they too can’t follow the lyrics

Singing to learn a language

Dane 2 has a two-year-old daughter and we spoke about whether she may have inherited his ability to hear and recall words.

He said definitely.

His daughter is learning how to count and has learnt to repeat “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10”  when they play counting. If he then puts up six fingers though, she doesn’t know what it means.

More so, when he and his partner read her a book, she has learnt what sounds should be said when, for example, they get to the page with a pig on it.

She has been able to listen, store and then perfectly recall the words for that page when they re-“read” it which feels to me like the “word processing” part of her brain is working very well.

I’m not sure how I was when it came to my first books (I’ll ask my Mum…) but I’d be interested in how you listen to music/ lyrics..?

* if you’re interested to try out, my top picks are The Toure-Raichel CollectiveToumani Diabete, Ali Farka and Fatoumata Diawara.

** whilst we’re talking about music, I’ve been loving the new album by Michael Kiwanuka

In other news…

I donated to my friends’ organisation in Kenya this week.

Youth unemployment is a big issue in the country. They work with smart young people and take them through a bootcamp to learn practical employability skills (growth mindset, taking initiative, soft skills) and get on the ladder for a better future.

It’s a social enterprise (there’s a nominal fee for students + they charge fees to recruiters who hire their graduates) but the organisation has been hit by some unforeseen shocks and risks going under.

Obviously I have an affiliation with them as it’s my friends, but if you’re looking for something worthwhile to put money towards (with zero bureaucratic overhead) then this could be a great cause.

They have a Donate button on their website:

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