Monday, May 16, 2016

Why learning songs with foreign lyrics need not be scary

I teach songs from all over the world, often in foreign languages. But people are always asking me for more songs in English.


Why is this? Especially since singers usually find the songs with English lyrics harder!

why do singers want songs in English?

I’m guessing a bit here, but I reckon these are the most obvious reasons why singers might prefer to sing in English. See also Why can’t we sing more songs in English?
  • familiarity – if English is your first language, then there’s an assumption that it’s going to be easier to sing English lyrics.
  • fear – of the unknown, of not getting it ‘right’, of foreign words being unfamiliar and hard
  • understanding– some people need to understand every word that they’re singing. If the lyrics are in a language they don’t understand, that can be an obstacle. See Song meanings lost in translation.
  • language – many singers feel that they need to be able to speak the foreign language in order to be able to sing in it. Maybe a French song is OK, but Serbo-Croat is a non-starter.
It turns out that none of these needs to be an obstacle.

It’s not necessarily easier to sing in English (see below); the ‘lyric police’ won’t be coming to arrest you if you get anything ‘wrong’; foreign lyrics aren’t intrinsically hard, just maybe unfamiliar; you don’t need to understand every individual word in order to sing a song – the overall meaning will suffice (see Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing); there is no need to be able to speak the language you’re singing in: just learn it by rote (see How to sing a song in a foreign language).

the problems with English lyrics

Singers may think that singing in English is easier, but it actually throws up quite a few problems.
  • storytelling – songs with English lyrics, especially those from the English folk tradition, are usually ballads so there are lots of verses to learn (and remember). They also tell a story so are usually sung solo with often tricky and unpredictable rhythms. That’s hard when a group of singers are trying to sing such songs. See also Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs.
  • paraphrasing – because we understand English lyrics, we tend to remember the overall meaning rather than the individual words. So we end up paraphrasing, using similar words to get the gist. But those words won’t fit the music and also we need everyone in the choir to be singing the same lyrics.
  • mis-remembering – not only do people want to sing songs in English, they often want to sing something they already know, believing that this will make learning easier. Actually it usually makes it harder! There’s a very good chance that we’ve mis-remembered the lyrics over the years and we will have as many different version as there are singers. See It’s hard to teach songs that people already know.

the advantages of learning songs with foreign lyrics

Believe it or not, there are many advantages of singing songs in a foreign language, even if you think it’s going to be harder.
  • enjoy different sounds – you can really enjoy getting your mouth and tongue around the unfamiliar sounds of foreign lyrics. You can focus on individual syllables (rather than the meaning) which results in a tighter sound for the group.
  • not many lyrics – many songs from countries with a strong harmony singing tradition focus on the sounds rather than the meaning, so the words are not as important. In many cases songs might have only one, two or three words.
  • open vowels – English is a rather flat language which can almost be spoken without moving your mouth. Not very good for singing! Whereas many foreign languages have ‘open vowels’ (like Italian which is used a lot in opera and bel canto voice training). These vowels are a fantastic vehicle for singers and can help with blend and tone in a choir.
  • level playing field – there’s a good chance that nobody in your choir will know any of these foreign songs in advance. In which case everybody is starting from the same place, unlike songs in English which many choir members might already know.
  • sing in character – singing in a foreign language enables us to feel like we’re someone else. We can sing in character which can be enormously liberating. See Want to sing with more energy? – pretend to be someone else.
  • learn about other cultures – singing songs from different countries allows us to find out more about unfamiliar cultures. It opens the world up to us and helps us to understand that human beings are all the same regardless of where they come from. We all fall in love, have children, get sad and die.
  • focus on the music – since we usually won’t understand the language we’re singing in we won’t get sucked into the story but can focus on the music and harmonies – which is what a choir is about after all. See What do words add to music?
  • rote learning stays longer – unless it’s a foreign language that we speak, the only way of learning is by rote, one syllable at a time. Since we have to drill this more than English lyrics and there’s no scope for paraphrasing, the lyrics tend to go into our long-term memory better. See How to sing a song in a foreign language.
  • be a better singer – by having to focus on the sound of the words and being exposed to an unfamiliar language, you will develop your listening skills and become a better singer. See Singing is all about listening.

what puts you off singing foreign songs?

Are you one of those singers who panics at the thought of learning a song with foreign lyrics and prefers to sing in English? I’d love to know why! Do drop by and leave a comment.

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Chris Rowbury



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