Music - Rockin Rockin Music
May 21, 2009 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Why don't I pay attention to lyrics?

I am a huge music fan, as well as being a musician. As long as I can remember I have had a serious infatuation with music, and I generally like to have it on during all waking hours. Which is why I am wondering - why don't I pay attention to lyrics? Unlike most music fans, I generally couldn't tell you the lyrics to a lot of my favorite songs. I even listen to a ton of hip-hop, but generally don't remember the lyrics (Enter the 36 Chambers excepted, as I've probably listened to that album more than any other album ever.)

My questions:

1.) Is this a known phenomenon?
2.) Does it have to do with conditioning, or is this how my brain was wired?
posted by orville sash to Science & Nature (39 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm the same way. I've never thought much about it, but I'm often amazed when people fixate on "obscene" lyrics, etc., because lyrics almost never register in my brain.
posted by socratic at 7:12 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't either. I think it is because for much music, the lyrics aren't that important. The voice is, and where the lyrics may add some emotional undertone, they don't need to be listened to consciously. That said, some music is about the lyrics, and in those cases I listen and remember. To pick a random (and old) example, pretty mush every thing that Simon & Garfunkle did was lyrics-driven and for any song of theirs I know, I know the lyrics.
posted by rtimmel at 7:16 AM on May 21, 2009

Response by poster: You know, I've found that when I listen to hip hop, I just sort of think of the rapper's voice as a percussive instrument, and I can usually remember the syncopation if not the lyrics themselves. I do find, though, that I'm less interested in singer/songwriter type artists who are known for the quality of their lyrics, Bob Dylan being a prime example.
posted by orville sash at 7:18 AM on May 21, 2009

I"m guessing that you're not an auditory learner - the words probably just don't stick in your mind as well.

In my case, the words just seem to come too slowly in most songs. I read waaay faster than most people sing, so I'm used to receiving my info quickly. Unless it's a rapid-fire rap battle, my mind just takes off to focus on more interesting things.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:19 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

How's your hearing? I have poor hearing and seldom understand lyrics unless they're quite clear. Doesn't stop me loving music.
posted by theora55 at 7:21 AM on May 21, 2009

some people have a genetic disorder that causes my brain to send spoken (sung) word through a couple extra pathways in order to associate meaning to them.

do you have to concentrate extra hard to understand when people are talking to you?

maybe you just hear the words as sounds without associating any kind of meaning to them.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:34 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

My parents have always argued about what's more important - music or lyrics. My mom likes the music. My dad prefers to listen for the lyrics. Everyone I know has a preference for one over the other. For a while, I thought it was a gender thing (with guys tending to listen for music over lyrics), but my anecdotal evidence doesn't confirm it. I don't know why this is, but I do know it's a pretty widespread phenomenon (you're not weird).
posted by prefpara at 7:41 AM on May 21, 2009

From what I understand, that is a stereotypically male way of listening to music. There's even a joke about it: if you ask a girl to do "Purple Haze," she'll start singing "Purple haze, all in my brain," where if you ask a guy to do it, he'll start air-guitaring and going "Owee-ee-ow, owee-ee-ow!"

My girlfriend and I are a confirming data point. She likes all this hardcore music, much of which sounds the same to me (literally, I can barely tell the difference between songs, let alone between bands), but she knows all the words to her favorite songs, and the words are why they're her favorite songs. I can barely understand some of the lyrics she loves.

On the other hand, I love music for the way it sounds and don't care much about the lyrics -- in fact, some of my favorite music doesn't even have words. It takes really strong lyrics to make me notice them, and that only after repeated exposure. (Harvey Danger's "War Buddies" is one of the songs that made me notice the words -- after I'd already listened to it a dozen times.)

As further confirmation of "male lyrics blindness," I actually had to look up the lyrics to "Purple Haze" to quote the first line. I have heard that song at least a hundred times.

My girlfriend and I do have some music in common (we both like Ben Folds) but she will occasionally reference a line from the middle of the third verse that I'd never even noticed before. If it's in the first verse or the chorus, I may know it, otherwise probably not.

So I would say you are "normal," assuming you have a penis.
posted by kindall at 7:42 AM on May 21, 2009

I've found that when I listen to hip hop, I just sort of think of the rapper's voice as a percussive instrument, and I can usually remember the syncopation if not the lyrics themselves.

I also have a lot harder time remembering rap lyrics than lyrics in other types of music. Part of it might be that there is just more words to remember, but I also think part of it is the fact that there's not really a melody that I attach to the lyrics.

Personally I can only remember the lyrics to a song by replaying it in my head. I couldn't, for example, write down the lyrics of a song in reverse very well at all. If someone says a lyric in the middle of a song I can start remembering from there but otherwise I have to start at the beginning or on a chorus or other memorable part. I also have a hard time remembering which lyrics go to which verse, because my brain seems to attach the lyrics to the melody and in that sense the different verses are interchangeable. So for me remembering the lyrics is basically equivalent to remembering how to sing the song from beginning to end in my head.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:50 AM on May 21, 2009

I think it may have something to do with the fact that language and music are processed by different parts of the brain. They're both auditory information, but they're different kinds. (Much in the same way that our brains process faces differently from other visual information.) You can't remember the lyrics, but you can probably remember the tune the lyrics were sung to.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:53 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

There have been at least a dozen songs that I have had on my ipod for years and one day I really "hear" it and the lyrics blow me away. I also have a hard time hearing words if there are other noises going on, so I think chicago2penn might be right. I really, really have to concentrate to hear lyrics in songs.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:01 AM on May 21, 2009

I'm the exact same way.

It's not that I have trouble hearing -- I'm very good at remembering music. And in fact, I often find I'm good at recalling the lyrics if I try.

And it's not just with music where the lyrics are hard to understand.

Some of the above gender comments are overly simplistic. I know women who don't care about the lyrics either, and I know men who are as deeply connected to the lyrics as anyone.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:05 AM on May 21, 2009

BTW, this is a positive thing that should be embraced. It means you're more focused on the music. I enjoy listening to music in foreign languages, being able to appreciate it on the same level as music in English, and not feel that anything's lacking. I feel sorry for people who are bored by classical music with vocals in German just because they can't understand the words.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2009

Do you think in words? Or do you think in abstractions, or pictures, or something else? Everyone thinks differently.

I think in words with some abstractions. When I think, it's literally in full sentences, and I see the individual words of the sentence in my head visually, as letters. I can't hear a song without hearing the lyrics. If I don't like the lyrics to a song, I can't listen to it. When I look for new songs, I look up the lyrics first, while I listen to the first couple of measures.

My husband thinks almost entirely in abstractions and has to focus to convert that to words. He does not hear lyrics without a conscious effort. After years of being together I've noticed that he has begun to listen to the lyrics of the songs I play in the car because he knows they mean something to me, and he's curious about that.

My husband also has a greater appreciation of purely instrumental music than I do, and he plays a few instruments. The only instrument I've ever managed to keep up my entire life is singing. Why? Because there are words. I've been alright at piano and guitar but I could never keep going with them because there weren't any words.

Anyway, what I'm saying is I think it has to do with how your brain is wired... but however your brain is wired might be something that is conditioned when you're young. I don't know. From an early age I read and wrote and sang constantly. My husband was more the math type.
posted by Nattie at 8:25 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Music and language are processed differently, as ocherdraco said. I'm mediocre at best at playing "Name That Tune," but I'm great at "Name That Lyric." (Data point: I'm female.)

I guess I'm one of the poor benighted souls Jaltcoh pities, but on the other hand, I feel like I get a lot more out of the music I listen to than people who don't register the lyrics, parse them, tease them apart and see what story they tell or advice they hold or observations about the human condition they share.

If you're enjoying what you're hearing, that's really what's important.
posted by notashroom at 8:26 AM on May 21, 2009

I have a friend who's just as into music as I am, but the major difference is she's been playing a musical instrument (the violin) for much longer than I've been playing my instrument (the guitar). Her taste in music is far more varied than mine; she can talk melodies and countermelodies like tomorrow and listens to music for the music's sake and can say, "Well, I like the melody, but not the words"--that's if she ever catches onto the words.

I can't imagine liking a song if I didn't like the words. This is part of the reason I'm a Bob Dylan fan while my friend can't really listen to much of him--she sees the flaws musically, but I'm drawn to the power of the words: the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.

I think in words, too, with some images--but mostly words. I've had enough musical training to pick out things musically that I couldn't before, but I am a lyrics girl first and foremost, while I think maybe people who have had extensive musical training *as* they were introduced to music (perhaps from 5th grade on, when one begins develop extensive musical taste) might have a strong inclination toward music. I grew up reading books long before I developed any real taste in music; I think that made me a words person when I first came to music.

(Friend and I are both female, same age.)
posted by Dukat at 8:54 AM on May 21, 2009

*like no tomorrow.
posted by Dukat at 8:54 AM on May 21, 2009

I think the song "Hook" by Blues Traveler is kind of about that very phenomenon
posted by BoscosMom at 8:56 AM on May 21, 2009

Response by poster: Boscosmom:

I have heard the song, and I know the part that goes "suckitin suckitin suckitin like its rintin tin" or something like that, but - surprise, surprise - I never paid any attention to the lyrics.
posted by orville sash at 9:01 AM on May 21, 2009

To be honest I never really listened to the lyrics either until I happened to see them written down one day, then I went around for days saying: "OMG have you ever really listened to the lyrics of this song? It's all about how we don't really listen to the lyrics of songs!"
posted by BoscosMom at 9:14 AM on May 21, 2009

This is a really interesting question.

Data point: Male, classically trained piano/violin, but very lyrics oriented.
I'd even say that I'm lyrics + melody oriented.
Outside of classical music that I actually learn, I don't remember background music/rhythms or melodies if they don't have lyrics attached (e.g. guitar solos).

My main purpose of listening to music is to sing along. When I play the guitar (if you can call it that) I only play chords and will pretty much only strum down beats. But, I'll be able to sing along to it perfectly.

Contrary to other lyric followers though, lyrics don't mean a lot to me. Sometimes when I actually listen to what I'm saying I get into those "wtf kind of song is this?!" modes.
I remember as a kid confessing to my mother that my favorite song at the time was Color Me Badd's - I Wanna Sex You Up.
"Mom, this is my favorite song! ~I wanna sex you up, it feels so right it can't be wrong!~ ... ... wait..."
So maybe I'm more: (lyrics - meaning) + melody

I have a whole 2 years of High School Spanish under my belt. But I'll still sing songs in Spanish, French, Portugese, etc without understanding what I'm saying (or knowing if I'm even pronouncing things correctly).
Hmm, not sure where that all fits in.
posted by simplethings at 9:16 AM on May 21, 2009

I exhibit the same qualities. Surprisingly, I also sing semi-professionally. But here's the catch: I'm a classically trained instrumental musician and the vast majority of what I sing is in languages other than English. That underscores a major point here: a lot of music isn't about the words - it's about the emotion behind them, and conveying that musically. Susan Boyle could have sung "I Dreamed a Dream" in Esperanto, and it still would have had an emotional impact on people.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:21 AM on May 21, 2009

It may well be neurological processing differences, but I'd be hesitant about attributing it female/male. I'm female and I'm the same way (and have musical training).
posted by kch at 9:29 AM on May 21, 2009

re: "suckitin suckitin suckitin like its rintin tin" Do you know who
Rin Tin Tin was?
posted by BoscosMom at 9:32 AM on May 21, 2009

My old drummer was like that too. I don't think it means anything other than you aren't really interested in the lyrics very much.

Do you read a lot of poetry?
posted by Ironmouth at 9:59 AM on May 21, 2009

I'm the same way. I have a friend (male, like myself) who's all about the lyrics, and will happily go on for hours about what exactly they were "throwin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge" or what "Horse With No Name" was really about; me, I like songs with a good beat and a nice melody, and I rarely pay attention to the lyrics (well, except for Bob Dylan). It's not my hearing, and it's certainly not that I'm not verbally oriented; I don't know what it is, but there it is. Interesting question!
posted by languagehat at 10:26 AM on May 21, 2009

Response by poster: So - thus far we've gotten everyone everyone to agree that there's lyrics people and music poeple (Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, or whatever)

But is there any science to back this up? Anything beyond anecdote? Not that I'm not interested in what you are all saying. It's nice to know other people have this same experience, I'm just wondering if this is a learned behavior or a genetic behavior, and if there's any scientific research that's been done into it.

And for those who were wondering, I don't really have a problem with this. It doesn't in any way diminish my love of music. It does, however, make me curious.
posted by orville sash at 10:42 AM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: Settle for anecdotes of Science? I asked this question of a Speech Therapist with expertise in autism and brain injury about me (similar to yours). Her basic explanation was that I was neurologically processing the music aspects and that this was dominating/overshadowing the processing of the lyrics (eg music processing over language/lyric processing).

I can tell you from professional expertise that the distinction between genetic (ie structural) and learned is not so clear cut. Brains change structurally through experience, and are quite plastic (changeable).

You (and I) may well have a genetically predisposed brain which is optimized to process music well, and through your life experiences, your brain has been shaped to its current processing abilities. If you wished to change your brain to increase your ability to process language while simultaneously processing music, you could teach your brain to do this.

I too was curious, but not so curious that I have at this time chosen to alter my neurological processing in this manner. Google the lyrics, and enjoy the music was fine for me.
posted by kch at 11:00 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm more inclined to think that I focus on two distinct phases when I think about music that I like.

The first is what initially attracts me to the song. Did I like the phat beats (do the kids still say "phat")? Did the words have some meaning that I could personally connect to? For example, I love Týr's "Regin Smiður" and "Torsteins Kvæði" for the way it sounds (because I don't understand Faroese). Yet I also love listening to Josh Ritter's "Girl in the War" and "Golden Age of Radio" because of the lyrics.

Afterward, what is it about that particular song that keeps me listening? Do I still like the rhythm or melody? Do the lyrics still hold meaning? There are some songs from the past that I continue to like because I can answer yes to those questions. Sometimes, a song that I used to like for its music, I continue to like because of its lyrics, so I think my focus can evolve and change over time, too. Conversely, there are numerous songs from the past that I no longer listen to.

I don't think that your particular preference is atypical of "most music fans," even those who are musicians. I just believe that our focii are influenced by a myriad of personal and social factors, whether they include musical taste, background, profession, or social circles, and that it's still possible for that focus to change over time.

Which, on preview, is just a repeat of what kch said.
posted by CancerMan at 11:19 AM on May 21, 2009

Some of this is music type. Dance/party music rarely emphasizes lyrics. I've always like the Pink song "Get This Party Started" but I saw the lyrics at karaoke once and was stunned how dumb they were. A lot of indie rock works best with oblique lyrics, which don't make sense but hint at something and -- importantly -- don't distract from the song. It's better to repeat a verse that works than to use a weaker one.

Singer-songwriter music (early Joni Mitchell, say) has a lot to do with lyrics. And in a great song they reinforce each other (say, Pancho and Lefty or Suzanne or Old Man by Neil Young), creating a mood and getting into people's hearts. Certain lyrics can transport you as easily as music.

Which may be one way of saying, you could try listening to some different music.
posted by msalt at 12:00 PM on May 21, 2009

I find this thread pretty fascinating, because for me I think of the music and lyrics have approximately equal importance, intrerest, focus, however you want to put it. It makes it really difficult to sing a capella because I want to do all the instruments and vocals and everything at once, which would be impossible even if I weren't frustratingly tone deaf when it comes to singing. When I hear a song in my head, I hear all of it, start to finish, and have a hard time skipping over any part, be it instrumental or vocal.
posted by owtytrof at 12:00 PM on May 21, 2009

I'm the same way. I enjoy figuring stuff out on guitar and piano by ear, so my brain tends to filter out most lyrics. The singer's voice becomes just another instrument when I'm in music listening mode.

If I hear that a particular album has excellent lyrics, the only way I'm able to verify is to sit there staring at the lyrics on a website as I listen, which makes the process quite active instead of passive. It's a manual override that isn't particularly fun for me.

Sometimes as I'm driving in my car listening to a song I've heard 20 times before, my mind will wander and in those moments I will actually process the words that I'm hearing. It blows my mind a little bit. I'll get a weird feeling of "I've listened to this song a dozen times and this is the first time I heard him say THAT?". As soon as I realize that I've processed some words, I lose my ability to process them. It's like losing The Game (which all of you have just done, sorry...)

Karaoke is a strange experience.

Also, I do improv comedy and we often do group warmup exercises that involve individuals taking turns singing 10-20 second snippets of songs, each snippet inspired by the one before it. I am HORRIBLE at this. I can hear a song, recognize it, and think of another song that is a perfect companion... but when I try to sing it I only manage gibberish words, although with the right melody.
posted by adamk at 12:30 PM on May 21, 2009

With a few exceptions, I'm more interested in instruments than words. I think it's just a matter of taste.
posted by valadil at 12:34 PM on May 21, 2009

Yes, a question endlessly debated :)

I think this depends heavily on the music. Some performers clearly put a great deal of effort and meaning into their lyrics, and when that happens, I somehow sense it, and then I do pay attention to the lyrics - for example, Morrissey. The reason is that I feel at that point, the lyrics really do add an extra dimension to the music, and the way Morr sings you'd miss a lot if you didn't listen to the words and the meaning behind them. To take a random example, "Sweet and Tender Hooligan":

The sweet and tender hooligan, hooligan
Because he'll never, never, never, never, never, never do it again -
not until the next time

The way Morr glides out that line "not until the next time" is sublime, and you'd miss the thrill of it totally if you weren't paying attention to the lyrics.

This rule however, has a number of caveats. There are those singer/songwriters who seem to have 99% effort on lyrics and 1% on music. I can't enjoy that. To me the music comes first, which is why Morr works for me. Otherwise, I've got poetry, and I enjoy that on its own terms. And some performers I just don't like - I hate Dylan's voice, and that's that. Plus, as I grow older, I'm less enamored of the lyrical content of some of his work - and if you don't like the lyrics, and lyrics is 80% of the effort for a given performer, well, that poses a problem.

Similarly with hip-hop. I love MF Doom, and even though his flow is nothing to write home about (super limited range), I love the quality of his voice, and listening to his absolutely hilarious lyrics is hugely enhancing to the experience of his music. Then there are those whose flow is brilliant, but whose lyrics are standard and totally forgettable stuff - and I don't listen to their lyrics at all, but focus totally on the music and the musical aspects of their vocal delivery.

However, I find the majority of music out there, the lyrics are an afterthought, or almost random ("hmm, I need an "aaah" sound here, let's see... this word will fit"). I find myself totally not focusing on the lyrics in those cases. I still love the music, I just blank out the lexical meaning of the words.

A perfect example of how I pay attention to lyrics - or not - is Bowie. Sometimes I pay a lot of attention to his lyrics - when it seems to me they add a whole dimension to the song. Sometimes I don't ("Let's Dance"), when it's clear the lyrics are just an afterthought.

So I don't think it's an all or nothing proposition. The brain picks the times when it makes sense to focus on the lyrics, and when to ignore them.
posted by VikingSword at 12:55 PM on May 21, 2009

Response by poster: Its funny that you mention MF Doom, Vikingsword, because I find myself listening to his Special Herbs instrumental albums 90% of the time, in spite of the fact that I generally love his lyrics. I am just more into the loops he creates than what he has to say. I think that has to do precisely with his limited range. His vocals don't have a musical enough quality to them.

I would never do the same if presented with Liquid Swords and an instrumental version of the same album, even though I couldn't tell you any lyrics off of any song on that album other than "It was the night before new years an all through the fuckin projects/not a handgun was stirrin'/not even a tek" and "The Ebola Virus/under the reign of king cyrus (or is that osiris?)/you can see the weakness of a man right through his iris."
posted by orville sash at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2009

May not be too relevant, but your question brought to mind a favourite quote by Lloyd Cole (paraphrased, I can't remember the exact wording):

My lyrics are one part of the song. If they are regarded a separate from the music, then they've failed.
posted by geckoinpdx at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2009

I hear you orville sash, I listen to Special Herbs a lot too. But to me, an album like Vaudeville Villain is hugely enhanced because I pay attention to the lyrics. Or - at this moment I got Geto Boys on - they are actually very hit and miss technically, but the lyrics of a song like Mind Playing Tricks on Me, it's hard to separate in my enjoyment the catchy hook from the meaning of the lyrics. Still, I'd say that for me at least, that's a small minority - about 90% of the time, I happily blank out on the meaning of the words, which I rather think is the reflection of the fact that the lyrics in 90% of the song are not meant to be listened to for the meaning, but rather are there because they scan in a way that fits - and my brain picks up on that subconsciously.
posted by VikingSword at 3:34 PM on May 21, 2009

some people have a genetic disorder that causes my brain to send spoken (sung) word through a couple extra pathways in order to associate meaning to them.

Can anyone cite a source for this, or at least a name for the disorder?
posted by grumblebee at 3:34 PM on May 21, 2009

I know this is very old but since I have a different perspective I'm going to post anyway. I'm an ESL teacher and one approach in language teaching involves "learning styles"/multiple intelligences theory. Some people prefer to get their information more visually, textually, aurally, kinesthetically, etc. I've sometimes wondered if listening to music didn't also involve this. I'm very visual/textual and extremely non-aural (if you tell me directions, I just forget them right away, for example--write it down turn-by-turn or draw me a map). And when it comes to music, until the advent of the internet I rarely knew the words to anything. It was all just part of the music. So I suspect it's related to learning styles.

This is related to the neurological processing comment previously, but somewhat different--don't know if other non-lyric-oriented people may also find that they're also non-aural. (Not that anyone will read it at this point!)
posted by wintersweet at 11:28 PM on May 27, 2009

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