Lyrics vs. production: what do you gravitate towards? 

Graphic by Muriel Smith

A bilingual student shares how much value the lyrics hold in their music listening experience.

Have you ever wondered what kind of attention you devote to lyrics or production in a song? Why do people listen to music in a language they don’t even understand? 

Teaching at the University of the Philippines Diliman, ethnomusicologist Lisa Decenteceo explained in a Vice article that “there’s something about the appeal of words as sounds, beyond their meaning in a language.” Indeed, “sound symbolism” is part of the picture when passively or actively listening to music, which is the relationship between utterances and their meaning.

Regarding listening to music in a language that isn’t so familiar to us, music teacher and music therapy master’s student Thea Tolentino also features in Vice how “most of the time, when listening to music in a foreign language, we enjoy the lyrics as sounds and not words.” Tolentino also adds that a process called entrainment retains the link between the response of sound and the brain which “synchronizes our breathing, our movement, even neural activities [with the sounds we hear].”

First-year communications student Zixuan Li is fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and some French. “My main focus has always been the melody of a song because I just inherently never find myself gravitating towards lyrics for some reason,” she says. 

No matter the language, lyrics are never something she pays natural attention to unless she actively chooses to. Recently, Li has been incorporating more of an intentional concentration on the meaning of a track alongside the sonic elements. 

She says that when she sings along to a song, even when it is one she has listened to countless times, she still doesn’t know what is coming out of her mouth. “It’s like muscle memory and sounds to me, instead of being literal words that I process,” she adds. 

When it comes to the contrast between music featuring different languages she knows, Li admits she mostly listens to music in English despite her mother tongue being Cantonese. “I think in theory it tends to be easier to pay more attention to the lyrics in my first language since it comes easy,” Li shares. As for English and French, she says it takes more work and energy. 

Moreover, Li finds that a song’s structure will sound completely different in a certain language. Even if the songs are both in the same genre and hold similar melodies, their respective languages will make it so that lyrics in French, for example, will make a song sound drastically dissimilar to Li as opposed to how a Cantonese lyrics’ tone merges into a song. This all influences her direct notice of the lyrics’ meaning and space that a song’s storytelling holds for her. 

In general, Li is more in tune with a track’s melodies and harmonies, while lyrics are still a second thought. “The way I receive information is more natural in Chinese so it’s less hard work to engage with lyrics firsthand,” Li adds. The music production for the student is so much more significant than the lyrics.  

In my case, French is my first language and I am now almost as comfortable communicating in English as in French. I see the lines blurring more and more. However, I tend to concentrate equally on a song’s lyrics and instruments when it is in French, whereas I will take a while to look beyond the music itself in a track in English. 

From engaging in music in Cantonese in her younger years to branching out to music from other corners of the world, Li reveals that what fundamentally matters to her is how good the music sounds and thus intuitively lets the lyrics blend within the production.

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