Music in Different Languages

Music in different languages


Have you ever considered both the freedom and the limitations our language imposes on us and how some languages are better than others for certain purposes?

The German language for example, is great at describing scientific objects & phenomena. The way you can add parts of words to create a compound word allows you to be very specific and accurate. In fact, more noble prizes for science and technology have been awarded to works written in German than in any other language.

The Greek language was used in so much literature because it’s very descriptive. For example, there are eight words in Greek that express the English word ‘love’. This is because the love that you have for the self is a different emotion to the love that you have for your family, or a deep friendship love, or a general selfless love for everyone, or a playful love between lovers, sexual passion, eternal love or obsessive love. To the Greeks, all of these experiences deserved their own independent word. They are all ‘love’ but to the Greeks, the devil’s in the detail.

If you wanted to express a romantic feeling though, you’re probably better delivering it in French or if you’re expressing subtle philosophical contemplations, perhaps Japanese may be the most eloquent.

If you’re in rural Australia, you’ll find that humour and colour are added into virtually any phrase. Here’s a few examples:

‘She’ll be right mate’ = Whatever is wrong will right itself in time.

‘Fair crack of the whip’ = An equal chance to do something.

‘Dog’s breakfast’ = Something that is messy or done poorly.

‘What’s the John Dory?’ = What’s going on here?

It is also apparent that language, and in a broader sense, culture has a profound effect on music.

Do you listen to any songs sung in a language other than English?

I love listening to artists like Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Azam Ali, Benjy Wertheimer, Tinariwen, Juanes and countless others who sing in languages that I cannot understand cognitively, however, I am profoundly affected by the phonetics and the music.

My mind has no trouble creating rich imagery around the sound and I feel like I am journeying through different worlds & dimensions. I really have no need to know what the words mean. I enjoy an Italian opera performance in the same way.

Just prior to the pandemic, I took my son to see Sigur Rós. This band sings in a mixture of Icelandic and Hopelandic, an invented language that consists of sounds created to fit the music. It was a wonderful, ethereal experience.

Finally, although I was born in the USA and lived in Australia since I was five years old, my cultural heritage is Greek. I can speak Greek well enough to have a basic conversation however my grasp of the language is rudimentary compared to English. Nevertheless, there are a myriad of records I can play from Greek artists like George Dalaras and Haris Alexiou that can stop me in my tracks and make me cry. Why?

Putting aside individual & subjective perceptions for a moment, do you think there’s something about the ability some languages have to stimulate our minds and hearts? Or do you feel perhaps that the language itself is irrelevant, it’s the emotion within the music and sometimes the phonetics that stirs us?

Do you personally enjoy music or songs originating from a culture or language far different to your own?