Music and Language

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Lyrical Challenges

It's true that lyrics are one half of the equation of a song. Music is often used as a conduit to express a certain idea or message. Just take a listen to American Folk from the likes of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan. And so it is for musicians and songwriters from other countries. Miss the lyrics and you're missing one very important aspect of the song.

But does that mean that songs in languages other than English are not worth taking the time to listen? My answer is a resounding no. Much of this issues comes down to a fundamental question that affects all music lovers, regardless of the kind of music they enjoy: Why do people listen to music in the first place?

For many, the reasons we listen to music are hard to describe. It's a sort of feeling that involved mind, body, and spirit. The feeling of the music helps us to relax and unwind, or sometimes it pumps up our energy and keeps us company while getting through a drudging task.

Physically, the beat makes us want to get up and dance, jump, run, shake our fists, or sometimes just kick back and enjoy. Spiritually, music can move us to other places, in other times, in other dimensions, renewing our souls and our spirits.

None of the reasons for listening to music that I just listed have anything to do with lyrics. Lyrics bring about another aspect of a song, that being the message or meaning behind it which may reflect the time in which the songwriter was living when he or she wrote, and even reflect a wider cultural reality. German liedermacher music, as exemplified by artists like Konstantin Wecker, reflect the social criticism stemming from the 1968 student uprisings, and uses a wide range of musical styles, having in common lyrics which are wistful, whimsical, and poetic.

But in order for a song to make a mark, to reach a wide audience, people have to find it first entertaining and enjoyable to listen to. I don't know anyone who will listen to a song he or she can't stand just because the songwriter has something poignant to say about poverty or racism.

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