Living in the United States, I find it’s pretty easy to sometimes forget that there is a whole world out there making music in languages other than English. Our radio stations almost exclusively play English songs, and American artists who sing in other languages often do so as “secondary” albums that never actually hit the radio (does anyone remember the Spanish Remake Trend of the early 2000s?) — which is all crazy when you think about it, because we have people who speak so many different languages in the United States: at least 20% of the country doesn’t consider English their primary language. Plus, the rest of the world listens to our music, and English isn’t the first language for many of them. So what the hell is our problem?
I’ve loved listening to “foreign” music for a long time, since I discovered my first French versions of familiar Disney songs on Napster and KaZaa (it was a dark time) and on through high school when a family friend brought me back some Romanian music home after she visited with her husband. While my appreciation for it has only grown, I’ve found a lot of people seem to be confused about how to approach music in a language that is foreign to them, so I thought I’d write a little bit about my experiences with that and why you should give non-English music a chance…and how best to enjoy it, since there’s a good chance you probably don’t speak the language. Though I’ve primarily used Romanian music for my examples since that’s the non-English language you’ll see most often here at Headphone Couture, I feel as if everything here can apply to any music from any language, even if your first language isn’t even English.
Musical Culture Across Borders
One thing that many people have difficulty wrapping their heads around with “foreign” music is that different genres are popular in different regions and countries. You might be familiar with some of this, from Irish folk music to KPop and Bollywood hits, but I’ve found it goes even further beyond that. Sometimes you’ll encounter a popular new release that sounds similar to what we were listening to in the United States ten years ago, which can sometimes make it sound dated to those of us used to western music, but if you listen with an open mind you can more easily appreciate what you’re listening to.
It’s also important to remember that just like we have different genres in the United States, musical tastes are not necessarily uniform within a culture or country. Romania is a fantastic example of this; when many people think of “Romanian Music” they immediately imagine manele, a genre of folk music that for many people immediately conjures to mind visions of people in traditional garb dancing in circles (here’s some modern manele, for a taste) but for a country that’s slightly smaller than the state of Minnesota, Romania has an incredibly diverse approach to many different genres, such as pop, rap, hip hop, dance music, ballads, and more. Here’s a track from a Romanian pop artist that sounds as if she’d be right at home among American Top 40 artists:
Compare this to Killa Fonic’s take on Trap music below, coming from the same country but representing a different genre. The main things these two tracks have in common are their language and production quality, but beyond that? They are artists as different as Taylor Swift and Migos:
Likewise, France also has a surprisingly great rap scene as well, which I think a lot of people don’t consider when they think of the French language. Which is kind of crazy, right? We see it as the language of love, so wouldn’t it make sense if someone wanted to do an Usher or John Legend style ballad in French? Of course it would. Check out this older track from MC Solaar for a great example of this:
I find that this is also a great way to get a feel for the culture beyond music in many of these countries; rap music especially tends to address public and political issues, and even if you don’t necessarily understand the lyrics (we’ll get to that later) you can still try to read into the message they are trying to convey based on the tone. As you can see from the above examples, though, the country itself doesn’t necessarily restrict itself to one particular genre, and you’ll often find some hidden gems
Appreciate Production Values
When you aren’t focusing on the lyrics, your mind is forced to listen to other parts of the song and try to process it. I’ve found that listening to foreign language music has really given me an appreciation for the entire production process (in fact, you can even read about this in an interview with Romanian producer Serban Cazan right here on the blog) and especially music video composition. Here are two of my favorite Romanian music videos—take a minute to listen to some of them, watch the videos, and try to appreciate the stories being told. Listen to how crisp the music is, the layers of the instruments under the tracks, the cadence of the words, the rhymes, the beat. Check out the cinematography in the videos, the way that each shot is important and punctuated by the music accompanying it.
These are fantastic, right? You don’t even know the words (at least, I assume you don’t. Maybe you’re one of my Romanian readers. Buna ziua, in that case!) but you can still get a feel for a story, you can still appreciate that the music is well produced, that the lyrics are well written, that the artists performing the songs are really invested in what they are doing. On the front of the music videos, Ionut Trandafir is responsible for “Pierudut Bulletin” above and is honestly one of the best at what he does that I’ve seen in recent years. The language in this case doesn’t even matter: the video is beautiful and brilliant, and stands well on its own. (Please check out more of his work on his website. The dude is a genius.)
It’s also worth mentioning that while a lot of mixing and producing happens in North America, we outsource a lot of the “behind the scenes” aspects of music around the world to result in the final product that we hear through our headphones and on the radio. Romanian-born Serban Ghenea is responsible for the mixing on dozens of notable albums, including Taylor Swift’s forthcoming Reputation, and has earned eight grammys for his work. Back in 2015 Billboard published a list of the top ten music producers around the globe, of which some of the most notable members hail from outside the United States. It’s not uncommon for internationally renowned music techs to cut their chops on music in their native tongue before jumping to English language music, so by listening to a wide variety of music from a wide variety of production studios you may very well earn a glimpse at your new favorite sound before the rest of the world catches on.
Learn Something New and Embrace the Language
Even though you might only speak or understand English, I think it’s important to get an idea of what you’re listening to. Least of all because someone who speaks that language could roll up next to you at the stoplight and you might have some really vulgar profanity going on, but also because as much as I support appreciating the way things sound, you do really miss out on part of the experience if you don’t at least sort of know what you’re listening to. Living in the age of Google Translate makes this pretty easy; even though Google isn’t big on precision it can still give you an idea of what is being conveyed in the lyrics. One great way to do this is to learn the word for “lyrics” in the languages you’re listening to, it makes it infinitely easier to search for the words online (in Romanian it’s “versuri,” so I’ve already given you a leg up!) and often browsers such as Chrome will prompt you to automatically translate it. If you’re really getting into the language, you can even buy a dictionary off of Amazon or at your local bookseller to look up words on the fly. (I keep one on my desk for this reason!)
There are also a great variety of translated videos and songs out in the wild: I’ve covered similar songs here at Headphone Couture before, and other blogs often put together playlists and collections expressly for learning the language (like this awesome list of German songs). YouTube has a ton of non-English videos with English subtitles, such as this one:
While the translations are not always precise, they often perform the much more important task of explaining the meaning of the music, so that you can understand the themes. This is especially great for trying to understand music with slang or idioms in a language that is not your native tongue.
Of course, we’re often no strangers to learning a few non-English phrases while we jam out to English-language music: from the very recent “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” to every teen and tween giggling at the meaning of “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” when Moulin Rouge hit theaters, we’ve picked up different languages a little bit at at time, sometimes without even realizing it.
This is, perhaps, one of the most elegant and amazing things about listening to music in a language other than your own: eventually it starts to make sense. If you look up a word here or there, you’ll start to hear it more in other songs and soon enough you’ll start wondering what the other words surrounding it are, and the next thing you know you have a sentence. Years and years ago, long before the “numa numa guy” viral video, I listened to “Dragostea din tei” for the first time and looked up the lyrics translation. It was an alright song, but it wasn’t until I heard it again within the past year that I was surprised at how much of the lyrics I actually understood now. It was an incredible feeling, even if the song does feel a little like listening to an old *NSYNC record these days.
Building Bridges Between Cultures
Music is, and always will be, one of the ultimate ways to connect with other people. “What do you listen to?” is one of the first questions we ask new friends and potential dates, we journey with strangers to concerts, we camp out for tickets and front row seats. In the age of digital communication especially, music is everywhere. Hit songs travel at the speed of light, from big blockbuster albums like The Weeknd’s Starboy to viral hits just like those I mentioned above, and the music provides a way for us to connect with one another. In spite of the language, even in spite of whether we like it: just take a look at Nickleback and Smash Mouth and the way they have moved from musician status to meme status in jokes that are universally appreciated, regardless of whether you’re fans of the bands and their hit songs or not.
By opening our minds and ears to music in a language other than our own, we’re opening ourselves to one more way to communicate with others and establish friendships, relationships, and lasting bonds. Plus, you’ll have unlocked an even bigger catalog of new music to enjoy and to share with others… and who knows, maybe you’ll find the next big thing before everyone else.
Do you listen to music in a language other than your own? Who are some of your favorite non-English artists? We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!