Monday, September 27, 2021

The difference between foreign song lyrics and made-up sounds

How important is it that the words in songs mean something, or can they be meaningless sounds?

Many choirs sing songs in languages they don’t understand, so does it matter whether lyrics are in a real language?

Many of you know that I’m not a lyric person. But I do love the sound of sung words, regardless of their meaning.

Which is partly why I am drawn to songs not in English from other cultures (as well as the amazing harmonies).

Part of an audience’s enjoyment of operas in foreign languages is the sound of the words, and the expressiveness of the singer, regardless of whether they understand the language.

Many community choirs sing songs with foreign lyrics. They will know what the song means and what language it is in, even if they can’t speak that language.

When singing in a foreign language that you don’t speak, it is still possible to connect with the overall meaning of the song and to try hard to get the pronunciation and ‘feel’ of the language right (see Sing the intention, not the meaning).

But if you don’t understand the language of the lyrics at all, then why not just sing a meaningless string of sounds?

Some composers have done just that. One of the most famous examples being Karl JenkinsAdiemus. The lyrics are in a made-up language (albeit one that resembles Latin).

Another example is Njetsvoda by Belgian composer Jos Wuytack. The lyrics are made-up to resemble a Slavic language. Many people have even been told (incorrectly) that it’s a traditional Russian or Ukrainian song.

Is there a difference for singers between such made-up lyrics and an unknown foreign language?

I believe that there is.

I think that there is a certain level of meaning encoded in foreign lyrics, even if we don’t understand the language. I think that Jenkins’ and Wuytack’s lyrics work because they remind us of real languages that do exist.

If made-up lyrics are too random and have no perceived relation to any real language, I don’t feel that singers are able to connect with them as much.

What do you think? Have you had experience of singing songs with made-up lyrics? Do they all work as well? I’d love to hear from you!


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


Chris Rowbury




Monthly Music Roundup: