Monday, February 27, 2017

Don’t be too quick to dismiss songs that aren’t in English

Some people are put off when they come across a song with foreign words. They prefer to sing songs in English.

Xhosa singers
photo by Chell Hill

Not only are they missing out on so much great music, but it also widens your cultural horizons. Here’s why you should consider songs that aren’t in English.

I run singing days and weekends with songs drawn from many different cultures (including British culture). My passion is for songs from across Eastern Europe and the African continent. But some people are put off by this.

When one person heard about an African singing day I was running, their response was: “No way! I’d rather do songs in English.”

That is quite a common response which I believe comes from certain fears and misunderstandings. It means that some people are automatically dismissing a huge body of beautiful music without giving it a chance.

why people might not want to sing songs with foreign words

Here are five reasons why you might not want to sing songs in other languages:

  1. I don’t speak the language – you don’t need to be able to speak or understand the language you’re singing in, you can treat it as a sequence of syllables.
  2. I won’t understand what the song’s about – the person teaching you the song will give you all the background information you need, including the meaning and the cultural context.
  3. foreign words are difficult to pronounce – it’s true that some languages (e.g. Finnish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic) are difficult at first, but many languages (e.g. Serbo-Croat, Xhosa, Spanish) are relatively simple with common vowel sounds.
  4. I need to know what I’m singing from moment to moment – the meaning of song lyrics is often poetic and just knowing the meaning of each individual word doesn’t necessarily reveal the overall meaning of the song – even if it’s in English. Just follow the feeling and mood.
  5. I feel silly doing something so unfamiliar – it may seem a bit strange at first getting your mouth round unfamiliar sounds, and many cultures are much more ‘over the top’ than British culture. But it can be liberating.

why singing songs in languages other than English has huge benefits

Here are five reasons why it’s a really good idea to sing songs in languages other than English:

  1. it’s liberating to become someone else – once you’ve discovered your inner Zulu (or Georgian or Bulgarian or Tanzanian) it can be extremely freeing. Using the unfamiliar sounds allows you to step outside yourself and can free your voice (see Want to sing with more energy? – pretend to be somebody else).
  2. introduces you to other cultures – there’s a whole world of wonder out there. It has been shown that  Listening to music can improve unconscious attitudes towards other cultures which improves our relationships with our neighbours and can bring about world peace!
  3. makes a whole world of music available to you – why limit yourself to Western music? There is so much exciting and ‘different’ music out there it will widen your horizons and shatter your preconceptions.
  4. allows you move whilst you’re singing – many songs in English are quite static. Even pop songs allow just simple side steps and arm waving. But songs from other cultures often have dances associated with them in strange and wonderful time signatures. Not only does this bring a song alive, it loosens your body and helps root your voice so you’ll sing more freely.
  5. enables you to communicate with people from other cultures – I know a song from pretty much every country I have visited over the years. It’s wonderful to be able to share something with the culture I’m visiting. It earns immediate respect and breaks down barriers.

other ways into foreign songs

You might find these other posts of some use:

Song meanings lost in translation – how the meaning of songs is encoded in the music and not individual words

How to sing a song in a foreign language – handy hints on learning a song that isn’t in English

Why learning songs with foreign lyrics need not be scary – why songs with English lyrics aren’t necessarily easier

being ‘authentic’

In How to sing songs from other cultures more authentically, I look at how we, as English speakers, can make a foreign song sound as ‘authentic’ as possible. I also look at the ways in which you should respect and honour the culture that a foreign song comes from.

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Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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