The Charms of Foreign Language Music

I said in my long article on the ESC that I usually keep listening to about one or two songs from each year. Well, this year I’ve kept Austria’s entry “Loin d’ici” (Austria singing in French? The Emperor must be turning in his grave) and listening to it made me realize I had a musical experience I usually don’t have.

I don’t speak French. I can pick up a few words when it’s written, but against spoken I don’t stand a chance. I do like listening to songs in French, and not just because it’s a beautiful language. There’s just something special about the words being incomprehensible to me. How do I know? I noticed the same reaction when listening to another old ESC entry, in Slovakian.

Listening to singing in a language I don’t understand feels different. It’s not just that the music lacks the semantic dimension. Something is added, too. Incomprehensible singing lies somewhere between vocal and instrumental music; you get the sound of a voice and the flowing, hummable soundscape of a language without being distracted by the meaning of the words.

I’ve thought before (in the context of the ESC) that music sounds worse on tv than in my normal listeing environment (headphones) not only because of live vs. studio versions and single origin vs. immersive sound, but because the visuals distract you (especially if it’s the first time you hear that particular song; if the song is familiar perception gets boosted by memory). Engaging vision as well as hearing weakens sound as a stimulus and makes music feel bland. I’ve noticed how much more powerful music gets if I lie down in the dark when listening.

Now I realized that understanding the meaning of the lyrics interfered with the perception of the actual sound of the singer—the pleasurable sensory qualities of a nice voice making language noises. I listen to a lot of instrumental music since I tend to find lyrics distracting, but only now did I understand that incomprehensible lyrics was a way to get a little of each.

Then there’s also the surprisingly powerful illusion of virtuosity that comes with listening to music in a language you don’t speak. It’s stupid, of course—as stupid as being impressed by foreign children speaking their mother tongue perfectly—but I still can’t help but be wowed when someone manages to effortlessly sing a song in French, Russian, Greek or whatever, pronouncing those devilishly tricky successions of sound quickly and without breaking a sweat.

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One thought on “The Charms of Foreign Language Music

  1. This is lovely. 🙂 I’ve definitely felt the effect: (overfamilar) semantics hiding from conscious perception the underlying soundscape of language, mouth and even music.

    A big part of why I like learning languages so much is because they open me up to the possibilities of my ear & mouth: I can participate in this new soundscape! (I can pronounce strange sounds & wear accents far better than I can sing.)

    Plus, you can use your marveling at the contingency of a new language’s meaning structures to boost your perceptual enjoyment of its funny new sounds: Chinese(s) “words”, a lot of them monosyllabic, are as grammatically un-inflected & yuxtaposable as their symbols thanks to its rich sonic palette (multiplied by tones). The nearby Japanese on the other hand has one of the most limited palettes on Earth and yet it collided and digested Chinese(s) & English! French is such an odd Romance language, euphoniously reminding me all the time of my native Spanish as much as English (thank you Norman conquest!).

    Learning Portuguese these days I’m delighted with its vowels (some more open than Spanish, some nasal as in French) and its exotic consonants in the most familiar places (like the “dy” sound in every “d”).

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