Do you need to understand the lyrics to like the music?

After listening to this CD, which I enjoy very much, without understanding a single word, I was wondering if you need to understand the lyrics to like a song.

I’m thinking about language barriers and mumbling like Kurt Cobain.

Cocteau Twins, say no more.


Murmur by R.E.M.

Sigur Rós


Lyrics, and understanding them, can add to the music, but understanding or even discerning them is not necessary for enjoyment in my experience.

1 Like

Although when I saw Hannah Peel at Rough Trade East once she performed a cover version of Sugar Hiccup and afterwards I said, “I’m impressed that you managed to work out what words to sing” and she looked at me as if I was mad!

Yes, definitely not necessary - often nice to know but sometimes you’re better off not knowing! I’ve been disappointed more than once when I’ve made the effort to translate some songs.

I can happily listen to Verdi operas and African music without understanding the words. Although the surtitles at a live opera performance does add to my enjoyment.

I also listen to French, German and Spanish music and only understand some of the words.


Are there more than three levels of understanding lyrics?
Language is an obvious one and the reason to start this topic. I feel more at ease listening to languages I speak. Accordingly most of my music is sung in English, German and Dutch. But just as I like the Italian recording above, the few French, Norwegian, Portuguese and others are here for a reason: I like them as well.
The second one is the ability to understand unclear pronunciations. No matter if it’s mumbling, screaming (both Heavy Metal and Opera) or anything like this, it usually irritates me. The number of recordings like these among my music is most likely smaller than those in unknown languages.
Then we have the meaning of the lyrics, something I hadn’t thought about when I started the topic. I more and more can’t be bothered by someone who can’t or won’t make himself accessible. Don’t get me wrong here, if the lyrics make me think I regard them as interesting. Only if thinking for a reasonable time leads to nothing at all, I start wondering about why I bother at all.
I surely have records that fall in one or two of the categories mentioned above. If the whole experience of listening is good, things are well. But the others have it easier to stay.

I have to really focus hard on listening to lyrics never mind understanding them. Even if they are very clear then most of the time I just don’t manage to. Just the way my brain works I guess. Doesn’t stop enjoying it though.

1 Like

I tend not to let it bother me. I struggled with French at school and now meet people from all over the EU who speak English as well as I do. I am embarrassed by my ignorance.
With music it depends how well crafted it is. I’m thinking of when my son introduced me to Rammstein. More than just a noise the sings are well put together, demonstrate timing, dynamics, nuance that I just listen as if the voice is another instument.
I can happily listen and enjoy Cantate Domino and Carmina Burana without knowing what is being sung.
Last year I thoroughly enjoyed Schubert’s Wintereisse, once without any aids and later with a translation sheet.
Then I get frustrated at songs in English where diction or timing is so bad I cannot understand what is happening.

There are some lyrics which don’t necessarily make sense but just sound nice. I always think of Marc Bolan’s lyrics being a bit like that where he’s just used certain words because he likes the sound of them. And some of David Bowie’s with his William Burroughs cut-up method of songwriting.


I listen to music all the time where I don’t understand a single word but the voice is beautiful, or the music is beautiful, engaging, wonderful interplay between the musicians, has my toes tapping, body swaying, head bobbing, smiling like the day my daughter was born!

I read poetry and the words are important.

With a song lyrics are wonderful and can make a song or break a song for some.

With music it is the sound of the voices and the instruments that bring the joy for me.


Listening to Yes, the answer is no.

1 Like

Absolutely not - otherwise world music would not be so popular. I love soukous, rai, and many other genres in which I don’t even know what the language is let alone what the lyrics mean!

Hi Mulberry, first of all congratulations for your good taste… :smiley:
To stay in.topic, no I do not need to understand lyrics to get lost in the mood of a song or enjoy the flow of emotions, music is a higher language than words…
However there are songs and authors that deserve to be also known for their lyrics.
Gino Paoli is certainly one of those, a great author and songwriter that contributed to define the spirit of the '60s/'70s of the Italian songs, some of his songs are iconic of those days and will always stay in everyone’s memory. A fine example is the last song of this album, “il cielo in una stanza”, that is one of those cases when lyrics are equally as important as the music is…
Moreover, on this record indeed Paoli pays a tribute to another great songwriter whose lyrics are even of a higher importance than his own works with two songs (‘Bocca di rosa’; ‘Canzone dell’amore perduto’ by Fabrizio De André).

A great album indeed and your post is the best reply to the main question of your topic; it captured a non Italian speaking listener enough to question whether it is important or not to understand the lyrics. This is the power of Music… :smile:

1 Like

Hi Allesandro,
and many thanks for your kind words. Just in case you are wondering how I ended up owning this CD, Danilo Rea is perhaps my favorite piano player. Among his works is a tribute to Fabrizio de Andre, which I just have finished listening to.
While I have no idea whatsoever if he and Mr. Paoli have cooperated before, the concert captured really shows to people making music together.

As a foreigner (English not my native tongue), multilingual and black metal fan I can say that to me understanding the lyrics is not an issue although it does add to the enjoyment on those times when I fancy singing along.

Strangely enough I have noticed that understanding the lyrics in Italian is a lot easier for me compared to English even though I have lived in England for the past 20 years and have barely spoken italian (I’m fluent in both languages).

I sometimes have trouble enjoying the music when I do understand the lyrics. A case in point is “Busload of faith” by Lou Reed. It has a great beat, it really rocks, but the lyrics are dark and cynical. Great track but I have misgivings about it.

Agree Steve, Bolan and Bowie are good examples. The lyrics are an essential part of those songs melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, but they don’t really make sense. Cobain the same.
However, the lyrics and their meaning are essential parts of listening to a lot of singer songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell etc. So my answer is: it depends…

1 Like

Absolutely. I do appreciate good, intelligent or poetic lyrics greatly. I think it’s one of the reasons I could never really get into Oasis.