Why can't I hear lyrics?
May 22, 2010 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I "hear" lyrics to songs? I know they're there, but I don't notice them the same way other people do.

I have a pretty good ear for music, and I can transcribe music with a reasonable level of competence. But I'm totally useless with remembering lyrics, and even hearing them. It's like they're there, but I don't even notice them.

Months and sometimes years after I hear a song, I find myself humming an instrument part from the song. My wife will say, "what song is that?" I dunno. "Well what's it about?" No idea. This is frustrating.

This is sort of amplified by the fact that my wife is pretty good at remembering lyrics. Sometimes when I want to sing a song I've heard a million times, I'll start singing like:

"Cuz we are living in a material girl..." and then get shouted down by whoever I'm with. That seems like a pretty obvious case, but I swear, I just get the lyrics mixed up.

What's the deal? Am I just too focused on the music part? Is it normal for people to lack the ability to focus on both music and lyrics at the same time?

No dyslexia or other learning disorder that I know of.

I just spend so much time listening to music that I would think I'd have the lyric thing down by now.
posted by circular to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
How's your verbal comprehension normally? My hearing is shot at exactly those frequencies necessary to distinguish words (around 8MHz I think), so music sounds fine but I can't make out the lyrics.
posted by musofire at 9:52 AM on May 22, 2010

I'm pretty similar, but I can hear/remember lyrics if I make a special effort. And some songs have lyrics which are striking and require no effort. It seems to be a matter of attention. Sometimes I hear the chord changes and not the melody.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2010

What's the deal? I think we're all just brain-different. For instance, I can't retain a single fact when listening to people talk--I went to a lecture last night and I couldn't repeat a single thing the speaker said, even though I was fascinated and enjoyed it very much. (This is why I despise audiobooks and podcasts--it's just noise to me.) And I also do better with notation and music, and have a hard time remembering lyrics. But good news: that you can transcribe music is a weird brain skill that most people don't have at all!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:57 AM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel better I'm exactly the same way and always have been. I mix up lyrics all the time, I don't really hear what the song is about unless I really focus on it. I often can't name a song even if it's my current favorite on heavy rotation. I'll hear a song out of context and it can take me some time to identify it and then it's all, "Oh yeah, I've been listening to that in my car for weeks!"

I used to be really in to music in high school and was better but that was also a time in my life when music was part of my identity definition. As I've gotten away from being defined by my favorite punk band, indie rock or riot grrl group (heh), lyrics have mattered less and less.

I'm guessing that if you practiced at it, you'd get better.
posted by amanda at 9:57 AM on May 22, 2010

Does the way that you're musically competent have leanings in pure noise/synth-y mathy stuff by any chance? Just venturing a guess via personal anecdata, but my husband is really REALLY in theory of noise type music, synths and all that, and he's the same way with actual lyrics. When he appreciates vocals it's never for the actual words or their meaning, but the way the singer's voice sounds and the way the voice fills space just-so. I'm completely the opposite--the way music and sound in general is made and the mathiness and physics of it all is a permanent bewilderment to me, I am all about words and writing--so I get really obsessed with lyrics and quality I perceive in them (or not), so I'll be like "damn, this song is amazing, those words there, g'ah" and my husband will look at me like I've grown three heads. Or he'll put an amazing song on a mix for me, and I'll be like "the chorus, the words slay me" and he'll be like "oh, what is he saying? I've never paid attention" or we'll listen in the car to a song and I'll be like "whoa that line!" and he will say he literally cannot make it out. Always feels bizarre to me, heh.
posted by ifjuly at 9:57 AM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm just like you, I sing the wrong lyrics aloud and sometimes just sing da-da-da-da. The only way I've found to solidify lyrics in my mind is to read them while listening to the song. I've attributed this to being a visual learner - I learn better when I can see the process, the instructions, the lyrics. My partner is an aural learner, and knows lyrics to an amazing number of songs
posted by rhapsodie at 9:59 AM on May 22, 2010

Wanted to add that both my partner and I are musicians, but he learns songs by listening to them over and over again (by ear), and I learn songs by reading the sheet music over and over again (by sight). Different learning styles.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:00 AM on May 22, 2010

Did you grow up hearing a lot of a language that you only partly understood? My mother is Chinese and I was never taught her dialect. When her side of the family was around, I would tune out. I have the same problem with song lyrics now - if it's not clearly audible, my mind will automatically stop paying attention to what the lyrics are. It was only last week that I finally pieced together the title "Karma Chameleon" and the actual song.
posted by Xere at 10:28 AM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem. Though, once I actually hear the lyrics of most popular songs, I'm not convinced it is a problem. I put it to how music is mixed today (the whole compression debate, y'know) The lyrics just get buried in the noise. Back in the day, music was mixed so you could, for the most part, pick out the instruments and vocals, making the lyrics much easier to hear.

And, yeah, my hearing is shot, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:36 AM on May 22, 2010

Dude, I am totally the same way. I listened to the first Weezer album probably a thousand times without knowing a single word of Surf Wax America. It's totally because you're listening to the music and the chord sequences.

My only cure is to listen to the music with the lyrics printed in front of me and singing along that way. It's the only thing that gets me to pay attention to the words.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:40 AM on May 22, 2010

n-thing that I'm another one like you. Judging by the replies upthread, we're not so unusual. If it's any comfort, it's always bothered me, too, but I never got around to discussing it with anyone. So I'm glad you raised the question, and I hope the replies give you as much relief as they have to me.
posted by aqsakal at 10:51 AM on May 22, 2010

posted by The Pusher Robot at 10:55 AM on May 22, 2010

I'm the same way. My roommate in college was the opposite. It was like the lyrics were the *only* thing he heard. I'm guessing you probably like the sound of the instruments and the music, and so you're focusing your attention on that. I'd also guess that the people who are very aware of the lyrics are to a large extent ignoring the music. (About my college roommate, I remember one time I said something like "weird that they put a flute part in there," and he said, "flute? What flute?" He couldn't hear the flute at all.)
posted by smcameron at 11:00 AM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm the same way. Last week at a party I was trying to make reference to Del Shannon's 60s hit Runaway. Could I come up with the word Runaway? No, but of course I could sing the organ solo note for note. I usually remember the general sound and feel of the words, but it is as if the sound of the words is completely divorced from their meaning.

There are exceptions: sometimes lyrics are either so simple, so powerful, or so dumb that they strike me light a lightning bolt. An example from the "simple and powerful" category for me is Johnny Cash's cover of I See a Darkness. The slow, deliberate delivery also helps. Johnny is great for that.

Once in a while I'll spontaneously click into the words to a song I've heard hundreds of times and suddenly realize what the song is actually "about." Bob Dylan's Masters of War was one example - turns out it's a pretty angry song.

I've always sort of imagined that the part of my brain that processes sound and rhythm starts lighting up like crazy when I hear music, and sort of shuts out the part of my brain that processes language and meaning. To be honest, I kind of like it. I think it's awesome that songs I have known and loved for a long time can still surprise me.
posted by messica at 11:14 AM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm the same way too, and I've always suspected it's because I'm an instrumental musician (piano and clarinet). I've spent my life learning melodies, not lyrics, so it makes sense to me that that's where my brain still goes.
posted by something something at 11:47 AM on May 22, 2010

Yup, I'm the same way too. I love music, strongly prefer music with vocals, write my own music with lyrics (although writing the lyrics is by far the hardest part), and yet I could (and do) listen to the same music over the course of years and could not tell you more than a few snippets of lyrics. Even if I try to pay attention to lyrics, I can't seem to do so for more than a short time.

I think one part of it for me is that, even when I read lyrics (or poetry), in a lot of cases I still have no idea what they're about. In general, my reading comprehension (which has been tested) is well above average but, for some reason, more symbolic or poetic stuff is difficult for me. Maybe because my brain isn't putting together any continuity or overarching meaning from one line to the next, it just has nothing to hold onto.

Like messica, there are some exceptions for me. I could sing along with most Beatles, Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, a lot of Talking Heads. I suppose the common thread between these is that they all have lyrics that are less symbolic and more straightforward.

Hmm...well thanks for asking this question circular! This bugs me too, and I think writing about it has answered some of my own questions.
posted by The Dutchman at 11:48 AM on May 22, 2010

Most people cannot decipher music. They would not know where to begin in transcribing it, and cannot separate the guitar from the drums from the bass. Thus, they focus on the voice and the lyrics, because the rest is a wash that just goes woooh-aah-bee-boo behind the vocals Anyone that has played an instrument enough and listened to music carefully enough to be able to distinguish the constituent parts is naturally going to be focused on different things when listening. Think about a grandmaster watching a chess game vs someone who doesn't even know how to play the game. The newbie might focus on and remember things about the board, the pieces, what the players are wearing, their expressions, etc. The grandmaster might remember the game changing mistake on turn seventeen and the brilliant play for check that followed, and wouldn't have a clue as to what the players were wearing.
posted by sophist at 12:08 PM on May 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm very similar that way, though for me it's been an evolution. As a small kid, I would hear the lyrics and focus on them. As I grew up, lyrics mattered less and less, until by my 20's I couldn't really hear them. At this point, I only notice lyrics if they are particularly striking - either good, or bad. But that doesn't mean that if a vocal is present, it's not important to me - on the contrary - to start with, the quality of the voice is very important, if it is not distinct, it tends to become extremely disruptive and unwelcome - bland voices turn me off; and the delivery is paramount, especially phrasing (Bowie for the win!). And indeed, in the last few years, as my listening has focused more and more on electronica, experimental, ambient etc., I tend to avoid vocals. There are exceptions - like hip hop, where lyrics are somewhat to me more noticeable.
posted by VikingSword at 12:45 PM on May 22, 2010

Who understands pop music lyrics??

(other than smcameron's roommate)

Aren't they almost always obscured by the music?

Thank god for the web, with all those lyrics sites.
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:32 PM on May 22, 2010

sophist said a lot more elegantly what I was trying to get at, so yeah, that. When you're competent enough to understand all the individuals parts of a song and how they're woven together, what is in the front and what is in relief, etc., I think you're paying attention to other things besides what the words mean, which is something someone who can't decipher all of that stuff (ahem, me) can't do and so the focus then becomes the meaning of the words instead.
posted by ifjuly at 3:39 PM on May 22, 2010

For what it's worth, I'm someone who recognizes lyrics VERY much and it has always seemed to me that the majority of people don't. So it's not like you're a weirdo or anything.

Aside from that: I'm a vocalist so I'm inclined to remember every little thing about the voice, including the words, and while I can recognize music fine I don't notice the level of detail that you do. I'm also a writer so words are very important to me. Finally, I think in words, which is only one of many ways in which it is possible to think.
posted by Nattie at 6:05 PM on May 22, 2010

I was very very involved with choral when I was young and I used to read and read currently, voraciously

I didn't know people *could* understand lyrics from pop music, etc.

I'm better now. It's just a thing, I think.
posted by alex_skazat at 7:34 PM on May 22, 2010

Have you had a hearing test? You can be musical and still have poor hearing. Worth checking out.
posted by theora55 at 8:46 PM on May 22, 2010

I've always had trouble making out lyrics. Sometimes the actual words are just strangely phrased, and don't sound clean enough for me to figure it out. Or it's sung awkwardly in order to fit the melody, and thus phrases don't sound natural. Or the words are just vague when meshed together (eg, "Kiss the sky" vs "Kiss this guy"). And while I might be able to impress with some rap songs, for the most part it's just an overwhelming avalanche of words.

Other times, the singer is just mangling the words so badly. Creedence is a good example. I could "sing" the solos to their songs, but some of the lyrics, I still have no idea what he's saying.

Another thing is the verse and chorus. Since the chorus is usually repeated the exact same way a few times in a song, those should be easier to make out and memorize. You cite the chorus to Material Girl as an example, but you do have favorite songs that you at least know the chorus to fairly well, right?

Now that I think about it, there are songs I've heard ad nausem on the radio, and can (unfortunately) remember the opening note, the riff, and the solo spot on. But (fortunately) the lyrics are just a blur. But I'm not trying to actively remember either aspect.

And there have been times where I make an attempt to listen only to the lyrics of songs I do like, and either end up listening to the instruments, or get distracted altogether. I still need to work on that.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:20 AM on May 23, 2010

Ah...me too!

Don't have much to add, but I notice that I also said me too to a thread about not being able to visualise.

I also find that when I take the supplement piracetam, my ability improves. (It has in fact improved over time anyway)

Piracetam has something to do with interhemispheric communication.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:50 AM on May 23, 2010

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