Fearing the indecipherable music


So I played some of my songs in my work place. Night shift. It would’ve been a lot boring without some music in the background. The first songs that played were my selected favorites from my Japanese music collection. People complained that it wasn’t their sort of music. That I should have chosen songs they could understand. Literally, perhaps.

I kind of hoped they would, at least, learn to appreciate the music even if they can’t really understand the lyrics. I wanted them to notice how the melodies just blend together in very pleasant ways.

Apparently, words or lyrics really matter to them. The tunes weren’t enough. They wanted the phrases. To think about? To reflect upon? And, maybe more importantly, to sing along. That, I can understand. But what I cannot understand is they have to complain about my song choices just because they can’t understand them—they’re not in the languages we speak.

Then, it hit me.

What if someone else played Thai or Viet songs, both I still haven’t listened to much? Would I learn to appreciate them too? Or would I end up complaining like the workers here did?

Then, it hit me again.

The people here don’t have any emotional or personal attachment to the songs I played, which are already very dear to me. Moreover, I can already understand the lyrics of these songs as I had already read them, and their translations, over and over again. Aside from the fact that these are foreign songs, this sort of music, to these people, is also very alien. Maybe, to some degree, invasive. It could’ve subconsciously caused them certain levels of discomfort, for they don’t, and can’t, decipher what phrases and words enter their ears and mind the moment I played these songs through. They have no idea what meanings these alien tunes may bring upon them.

Meanings. A number of songs become international hits because people know how to read the lyrics, literally and figuratively, for all their intent. The tunes are a big factor, but for many people, the words can either make or break these compositions.

But why is it that some senseless, shallow songs make it to the international scene? Do people go for the mindless fun sometimes, maybe to relieve stress? Or they want to tune in with the trends to have a sense of belonging to the community, offline or online? Or, perhaps, the tune alone is fun enough that the lyrics—whatever they might mean—don’t really matter at this point?

I don’t get it. People are complex and unpredictable, I can only question these things. But, I believe, the songs we go back to for months and years to come, in whatever languages, are the ones that we’ve welcomed in our personal spaces, and have invaded and eventually become a part of our comfort zone—evoking the sense of being home, within.

4 responses to “Fearing the indecipherable music

  1. Hmm, kpop is such a huge thing all around the world that I don’t think I ever faced this problem. Everyone around me are playing kpop music so much and I’m sure they don’t even understand the meaning of the songs. Though even for me, I don’t let people know I like Jpop and anime music so easily. There was a time where I did that, but nowadays, I have like different kinds of playlists. Playlists that I used to commute to work, playlists that I used to relax at home and so on. I mean, these music are the types you like, best save them for when you would enjoy them the most (nobody IRL knows I like Vocaloid music, for one :p)

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past as well, being someone who only has Japanese songs on his primary music-playing device.

    And while I don’t know if this is really the case, I’ve since likened people’s discomfort (or ‘fear’ as you put it) of hearing and subsequently liking a song they can’t understand to what I presume as man’s innate need to justify why they like something.

    With songs in particular, it’s either the lyrics or the tune, for the most part. It’s easy to say “x song sounds good!” but without some level of know-how or any level of exposure across a broad sample of music, the justification becomes less universal, and more subjective – with the expression becoming something along the lines of “x song sounds good, because I like how it sounds”, and while that’s good enough for some people, it may not be for others.

    So it becomes easier to say “x song sounds good, because it has a great meaning”, but with songs written in a foreign language, even that level of appreciation is gone. Leaving the person in a state of disarray, something like – why does he like that song, or rather,

    how is he able to like that song?

  3. I can relate to this since I also have Korean and Japanese songs in my playlist. While I can’t understand what I’m listening to without subtitles or translations and I can’t sing to them without the romanized text, in some strange way, they speak to me more and touch my heart more than the songs I have in English.

    • I think, appreciating tunes first is somewhat an instinctive activity–there’s nothing much to think too hard about. It’s simply pleasant, to hear these good songs, whatever words they may be packaged in.

      If we think about it, the first sounds we hear when we were infants were not exactly /words/, but just plain sounds. Even when we were still in the uterus of our mothers, everything in the outside world was music to us. Hearing and appreciating (or, rejecting) sounds comes naturally to us.

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