Philip Fine discusses research revealing the factors behind how well we understand song lyrics
Have you ever wondered why you can’t always understand the words someone is singing? Or why operatic sopranos are so hard to understand? And why the words are usually clearer in folk than in heavy rock?
Sometimes we mishear the lyrics, and this is such a common phenomenon that there’s even a word for it: Mondegreen, coined in 1954, which comes from a mishearing of the ballad line ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen’. Other well-known examples include the hymn line ‘Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear’ (think teddy with a squint) and ‘O Four Tuna’ (‘O Fortuna’ from the start of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana).
Research by Philip Fine at the University of Buckingham and Jane Ginsborg at the Royal Northern College of Music suggests there are four main categories of factor that affect how well we can understand song lyrics.
Performers and players
The first concerns the performers. Good diction assists intelligibility – think Julie Andrews – and the more singers there are, the muddier the sound becomes and the harder to understand (as in the Carmina Burana example above). And research by Nicole Scotto di Carlo suggests that opera singers have a particular problem with singing clear vowels, especially high in their vocal range. But it also depends on the balance with other performers: loud accompaniment (a heavy metal band or Wagnerian orchestra) clearly makes it harder to understand lyrics than just an acoustic guitar, or no accompaniment.
Attention and familiarity
Then there’s the listeners themselves. It’s obviously easier to understand lyrics if you pay attention to them, aren’t distracted, and have good hearing ability. But familiarity with the song, the specific text, or even the genre can help. Oh, and being a singer helps too, as you’re more attuned to how sung words are pronounced.
Environment and distractions
The environment is important too. The location (school hall, living room, outdoors) and acoustic (a reverberant church versus a dry concert hall) both affect the intelligibility of the lyrics. Distraction from audience members coughing, mobile phones and other background noise can greatly impair hearing and understanding.
Genre and technique
Finally, the music itself, and how the words are set to the music, can affect understanding. Certain genres (e.g. opera) are by nature harder to understand than others (e.g. folk). This reflects both the musical forces required to accompany them, and the different techniques of the singers themselves. Of course, picking out the words in a foreign language is difficult for anyone, but some singers are better at enunciating them than others.
So, the next time you’re listening to a song, try to notice how intelligible the lyrics are. If you can’t understand them, consider whether it’s due to poor diction, heavy accompaniment, not paying attention, the music genre, or perhaps a combination of these. And if you are a singer, arranger or conductor yourself, paying attention to these factors at the early stages of production could lead to an enhanced audience experience on the day.
This article features research published in Frontiers in Psychology. Read the full article here: