Fascination with the Foreign: Why do we enjoy music we can’t understand?

‘It’s good, but what are they saying?’

‘No clue.’

A familiar exchange to anyone singing the praises of music sung in a language that’s not their own. But how does losing the meaning of the lyrics affect our experience? 

Lyrics can make or break a song. Think of the wistful words that can make you cry or the witty ones that make you laugh; then of the forced rhymes and cheap clichés that make you cringe. But when we can’t understand what’s being said, the listening experience becomes simpler and more freeing. Take Nena’s 99 Luftballons, for example. The original German version is a pop-rock classic. If the hard-hitting bassline doesn’t fill the dancefloor, Nena’s energetic and urgent vocals will, even if you don’t know German. The song is irresistibly upbeat and it can be enjoyed for being just that: an floor-filling piece of synth-pop. Listen to the translated 99 Red Balloons, however, and our experience changes. It becomes a politically motivated piece about the Cold War and the tense atmosphere across both sides at the time. The lyrics are chock full of military diction, detailing a battle sparked by the confusion of the released balloons. The song culminates in the poignant lines: ‘It’s all over and I’m standing pretty / In this dust that was a city.’ The emotional weight of the song is deepened; it becomes a symbol of hope amongst the fallout of the Cold War. Whether this makes the listening experience better or worse is open to interpretation. It certainly makes it different. At the end of the day, the original and translated versions force two different experiences; one we create, one we are given.

Lack of understanding does not mean lack of emotional involvement in the song. Instead, music whose lyrics we can’t understand elicit a personal response that we have to figure out for ourselves. If we can’t understand them, we can choose their meaning. We can make a foreign song happy or sad, romantic or bitter. If there is a disconnect between lyrics and the music, we won’t know, and in a strange way not understanding the lyrics gives us agency over them. You can’t force Foster the People’s notoriously dark Pumped Up Kicks to be a joyful song, despite its upbeat tempo. However, you can perhaps make Lô Borges’ breezy Paisagem da Janela one. If you can’t understand Portuguese, it runs as a light, soft-rock song which we’d probably put straight on our ‘Summer Chill’ playlists. Yet the lyrics – which explore a morbid past under the rule of the dictatorial Military Junta – meant the song was originally banned from being recorded. Lyrics at odds with the music force us to re-assess what we thought of them upon first listen. If we can’t understand those lyrics this requirement is lost, something which seems simultaneously reductive but liberating.

At the end of the day, the original and translated versions force two different experiences; one we create, one we are given

The emotional resonance of foreign music can still be gleaned through the delivery of the lyrics, in the way that we feel emotion through any other instrument. With lyrics we can’t understand, the voice becomes another instrument. In Fishmans’ magnum opus Long Season, Shinji Sato’s voice floats languidly over the piano and adds to the dizzyingly dreamlike atmosphere in the same way the strings, water sounds, and chimes do. We don’t need to know what he’s singing about to feel the emotion coming through. Just as you would rave about a saxophone solo on a John Coltrane album or the piano on one of Herbie Hancock’s, the vocals can stand out as an instrument of its own. They can add depth and meaning to the given song despite being incomprehensible. This is not to say that understanding lyrics don’t heighten our listening experience. I frequently wonder what Sato is singing about and don’t doubt that they add to the album, but you can’t miss what you don’t know, and to have such a beautiful listening experience regardless seems enough to me. 

Often we choose music to reflect or reinforce a certain mood. Lyrics in our own languages can aid or hinder this. Understanding the lyrics of a song does not always makes their meaning explicit – they can be difficult to decipher, filled with metaphor and multiple meanings – but in general they become far more accessible. Listening to music sung in a language we don’t know denies us explicit content, whether political or plainly absurd. And yet it allows the emotional aspects of the music to shine through in their own merit, and for us to project our own interpretation onto them. Whether we interpret them correctly or not is irrelevant: it simply offers a different experience. As Stevie Wonder sings, music has a ‘language we all understand’, regardless of lyrics. We listen to foreign music because it still resonates with us on an emotional level, irrespective of language.