I have to admit that I’m not really a lyric person. I might have been listening to a particular pop song in English for years when I suddenly realise what it’s actually about! Or someone might point out the really obvious meaning to me, which until that point has totally gone over my head.
I’ve read quite a few books on working with choirs and singing in general, and without exception they all talk about how to convey the meaning of the song and how the meaning affects the vocal delivery. I have one such book in front of me now: Choral Charisma: singing with expression by Tom Carter (I’m not singling this book out, just that it’s fairly typical of its type). There is page upon page of stuff like “Connecting to the meaning”, “Analysing the text”, “Plot and character”, “Making an authentic personal connection with the text”, “Matching music and meaning”. There is just one paragraph in the whole book called “When the language is foreign”. The author says: “The dilemma for singers in such situations is clear. If they want to connect to the texts, they need to know their meanings”.
Many of the songs in our repertoire come from traditions where the expression and communication is mainly through the music rather than the words. Often cultures with rich harmony traditions have songs with very simple – even banal – words. In contrast, traditions where the lyrics are important – such as ballads and storytelling songs – the song text is not complicated by harmonies or complex musical accompaniment. Some of the songs we sing don’t make much sense, even if we do have a translation! So how do we go about singing such songs?
For example, the following are rough translations of a few love songs that we have in our repertoire:
“My sweetheart is wearing a red fez.” Crven fesić (
“Oh, Dobric, your cool waters flow to three towns. There, gather the young boys and girls of Sibenik.” Oj Dobriću (
“Girl with the black eyes, come here and marry me or give me a knife.” (the implication being so he can kill himself). Gogo shavtala (
“As my own I graze you, and you are dragging yourself behind me, little doll.” (to a sheep!) Ja Helo (Helokane) (
“There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes. He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.” Maramica na stazi (
Maybe something of the poetic nature of the lyrics has been lost in the translation, but I personally don’t find that these English translations help me to sing the song! In any case, there are often cultural differences. What to our ears might sound rather like a military march, or a dirge, or an upbeat dance song might just as easily be a love song or a song of loss and grief.
Some people say that as long as you stay true to the spirit of the meaning of a song, then it’s OK. But I believe that every song has its own unique feel which cuts across cultures. I believe that as long as you stay true to the music of the song, then you can’t go far wrong. The sound of the lyrics (even if you don’t understand them), the melody and the harmonies all go to make up a whole which suggests a mood or feeling, regardless of what the song means (if it’s a well-written song!). Sometimes it’s even useful to do this with a song that you can understand. Why not try singing a song with English lyrics using nonsense syllables and try to find the underlying musicality of the song? Sometimes the music can get lost beneath the words and the desire to communicate the meaning of the lyrics.
Even though I’m not a lyric person, I try very hard to never teach a song unless I know what the lyrics mean and have some sense of the background and cultural context to a song. We may not use the meaning to help us sing, but it’s important that we respect the tradition that the song has come from.