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Thread: Does one have to know the language to enjoy the music?

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    Senior Member Clouds Weep Snowflakes's Avatar
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    Default Does one have to know the language to enjoy the music?

    I personally find Rimsky-Korsakov's Operas I've listened to by now to be very appealing, as well as vocal music in German in general despite speaking neither Russian nor German; is that normal? Does it happen to you as well, or you must be proficient to listen to the music?

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    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    What if the language were a total invention ? The music and structure (compositional design + performance setting ) would be completely responsible for all meaning .

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    Music with unintelligible lyrics are still enjoyable the same way music with just instruments are enjoyable. That being said, Bach's Passions become really boring if you don't understand what's going on during the recitatives. Thankfully there are English translations I can follow along with

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    Senior Member Art Rock's Avatar
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    English, German and Dutch are no problem. I can usually at least understand some of the French, but there, and in other languages like Italian, Czech, Russian etc I would follow a translated libretto when it's an opera. For songs/Lieder/chansons I usually do not bother, and just enjoy the overall experience.

    Likewise, some of my favourite pop/rock songs are in mandarin, thanks to my wife alerting me to them. And likewise, my Singapore staff (1999-2002) really enjoyed some Dutch songs I played for them.
    I treat my music like I treat my pets. It’s something to own, care about and curate with attention to detail. From a blog by hjr.

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    Senior Member TwoFlutesOneTrumpet's Avatar
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    Words in (classical) music are irrelevant to me. So yeah, as long as the music is good
    Last edited by TwoFlutesOneTrumpet; Aug-27-2019 at 19:01.

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    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    Some people will be content to have learned the standards of fine taste and virtuosity . It is an accomplishment . What appreciation is there when the composer kneels to the poet ?

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    Senior Member Annied's Avatar
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    For me no, not at all. It's how the actual sound of the words fits the music rather than their meaning.

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    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    The composer would be challenged to make an alien's lyrical joke absolutely laughable .

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    I suppose the answer to your question is that one doesn’t have to know the language to appreciate the music on its own: one can enjoy all the things that one appreciates when listening to non-vocal music (the melodies, rhythms etc.) without any understanding of the speech sounds being made by the singer. But that’s not the same thing as appreciating the song. A composer is inspired to write a song by the text of the poem, so it seems obvious that if you have some understanding of the poem and then pay attention to how the composer matches the music to the text, you are engaging with the creative process of the composer on a much deeper level, and it is a much richer experience.

    Some so-called “art-songs” actually make little sense without an understanding of the text because they tell a story. One of the most famous of these is Schubert’s Erlkonig. It is an exciting story with four characters in it, telling of a terrifying ride through the night forest by father and his son and ending in the son’s death at the hands of the Erl King. If you didn’t know the story and didn’t have enough German to pick it up during the performance, although you might be impressed by the drama the singer brought to the piece and the terrific piano accompaniment, it would not be much of an experience. Even just knowing the story without understanding any German enhances enormously your experience of the song: you might realise that the piano accompaniment was the galloping hooves of the horse and that when the singer changed register, he was changing characters. If you can understand, even partially, what the singer is saying at any time, your experience is deeper and more satisfying. You could you hear, for example, how Schubert uses different music for the reassuring words of the father and the seductive suggestions of the Erl King.

    Not many songs tell a straightforward story like this. It’s much more common for a poem to evoke a mood, to reflect on an experience, describe a situation, recall a loved one etc. But the same principle applies: if you have some knowledge and understanding of the poem, you will get so much more out of the experience of listening to the song. A wonderful and free repository for song texts is lieder.net. It would be hard to find an “art song” that didn’t appear on this site, and many songs have translations into multiple languages. You can display the original language and the translation side-by-side which is extremely useful. Yes, it’s an effort to follow a text whilst listening, but even doing this once deepens your appreciation and pleasure on subsequent listenings.

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    Personally? Oh, yes.

    I love vocal music and, with each language I've made some sort of acquaintance with, I feel I've discovered a new world. It's not just that I can explore the musical territory more bravely and widely but that I experience what I hear more intensely.

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    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Klingon Opera




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    Not if the music is good enough to match the mood of the lyrics. Many compositions have been performed with and without the words. Case in point: Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night”, with and without James Agee’s poetry.

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    Senior Member Enthusiast's Avatar
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    There is music in words. I often find I don't need to know the literal meaning (opera is different, obviously) but can relate to the word sounds and how the music works with those sounds.

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    I think that when we cannot understand the words, the voice just becomes another instrument. (And there is vocalise, which has no words at all.) In come cases, trying to understand the words may actually be a distraction. (I do find that when I listen to vocal music, I generally like to have a sense of the context, like the basic plot of the opera and the characters.)
    Last edited by JAS; Aug-14-2020 at 13:44.

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    This is just another of the multitude of ways in which we are all different. In my case I find that I often prefer to not know what is being said, regardless of the language, even my own, especially with works with which I am not yet very familiar. If there is something that I have already heard many times and really like, then I might (or might not) delve into trying to understand the lyrics, just like I might eventually decide to start studying the score.

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