Why can’t we sing more songs in English?

Listed on August 18, 2013 in Blogs!

I often get asked this at workshops after people have struggled to get their tongues around a few foreign songs.

foreign lyrics

I point out that my speciality is “traditional songs from around the world in the original languages”, then I tell them that foreign songs are easier to learn. Really?

At a recent workshop I offered, as usual, a mix of songs from all over the world, including a song in English. At the end of the weekend, it was the English language song that proved to be the most difficult!

It had lots of verses (many songs from England are long ballads which tell a story); people remembered the vague meaning, but not the precise words; struggling for the right words got in the way of the harmonies.

Most people are scared of foreign lyrics, especially something as unfamiliar as Serbo-Croat or Georgian (or, much harder, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic!). See also How to sing a song in a foreign language.

They also believe that if a song is in English it will be easier to learn and they might know it any way which will make learning much easier (but see It’s hard to teach songs that people already know).

However, in many cases foreign songs are much easier to learn. Here’s why:

  • emphasis on harmony – means less emphasis on words. Most cultures with a harmony singing tradition focus on the harmonies rather than the words. So meaning is not as important and there tends to be a lot of repeated words.
  • fewer words to learn – some foreign songs have just one or two words, e.g. Mravalžamier (Georgia), Senzenina (South Africa), Haere mai, e nga i wi e (New Zealand), Obo sumi sa (Ghana), but are still great to sing.
  • no danger of paraphrasing – if a song is in English, we often remember the overall meaning rather than the individual words when we’re first learning a song. That means that people often paraphrase and use words that are wrong and don’t fit in. With an unknown language, we need to learn the syllables precisely.
  • level playing field – if a song is in an unfamiliar language, there is a very good chance that everyone in the room will be learning it for the first time. Nobody will have any particular advantage.
  • no lyric sheets – fewer words mean less need for writing lyrics down. Singers can concentrate on listening and working with others rather than reading.
  • scope for engaging whole body and mind – dance moves, rhythm, clapping, etc.
  • oral tradition – most traditional songs from other countries are handed down orally/ aurally so are well-suited for learning by ear workshops and choirs.
  • songs are up and running in minutes – since many foreign language songs are short and repetitive. Whereas an English song might take a long time.

In a one-day workshop I can get through six or more short songs in foreign languages. People learn the songs fast and can then enjoy more singing and less learning. But if I do songs in English, we may only get through two or three.

So next time you have the chance to learn some foreign songs, embrace it! You’ll discover something new, spend more time singing than learning, and get to focus on some beautiful harmonies.

Of course, there are long, complex songs in foreign languages, and some short, simple songs in English, but I think you get my point. What do you think? Do you agree? I’d love to hear your opinion.

Chris Rowbury’s website: chrisrowbury.com