It’s Not Easy, Mondegreen

mon·de·green/ˈmändəɡrēn/nounnoun: mondegreen; plural noun: mondegreens

Definition: a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resultingfrom a mishearing of the lyrics of a song.

You’ve heard these before, too many times:

  • “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy” (Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”)
  • “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” (The Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden”)
  • “The girl with colitis goes by” (The Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)

Sometimes, we mishear a song lyric simply because something in the performance, or the production, masks the singer’s voice for a moment. Other times, though, the reason we mishear a song lyric has more to do with the way the lyric is set (really, mis-set) to the music. And sometimes, when we mishear a song lyric, we don’t hear a “wrong lyric”, we simply can’t understand the words. Whatever the case, the effect of a misheard lyric is the same: our listener cannot experience the intended emotional reaction to our lyric because they don’t hear it the way we intended.

Can You Handle the Stress?

Language is designed with a natural rhythm. (For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to limit us to the English language, but it’s true in many others as well.) Every word has an agreed-upon pronunciation, and thanks to this, we recognize words when we hear them spoken. This pronunciation tells us how to pronounce the vowels and the consonants in the word, but for song lyrics, what is more important is the pattern of stressed syllables in the word’s pronunciation. When we speak any given word, we give emphasis to some of the syllables over others, by raising both the pitch (higher) and the volume (louder) of our voice for those syllables. For example, the word “important” is spoken with stronger emphasis on the syllable “por”, so that we understand the word as “imPORtant”. If, in conversation, we hear someone emphasize the syllables in another way, for example, “IMporTANT“, our brain must work harder to decode the word we’ve just heard, and it’s entirely possible that we won’t recognize the word.

Speaking vs. Singing

When we speak, the words and sentences we speak do not live within the context of music, so our listeners rely solely on the verbal emphasis (pitch and volume) to recognize patterns of word pronunciation.

When we sing a melody, something unusual happens: we generally abandon the idea of using raised pitch to offer emphasis to a syllable. In song, pitch (melody) becomes almost completely detached from its normal function of giving emphasis to a syllable, and instead becomes an independent musical accompaniment to the words (although it’s possible – and beneficial – to design a melody to agree with your words)

You Can’t Beat the Math

We still use volume to emphasize syllables when we sing, but the music actually contains a similar rhythmic pattern of emphasis which can conflict with our singing.

Consider this: when we sing, our words are carried along a moving musical roadmap. This musical context usually has a regular rhythmic pattern of beats. Most commonly, we’ll hear a repeating pattern of four beats in the music, and can count along with the music: “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4”. (Yes, some songs count in three [“1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…”] or some other number, and some songs change the count throughout the song, but let’s stick to a four-count for simplicity.) Because of the way our brain understands and enjoys music, we “hear” a natural pattern of emphasis within the beats of the music. Every time we count “1”, we hear the strongest musical emphasis, as our brain recognizes the repeating of a rhythmic pattern. Similarly, when we count “3”, we hear another emphasis, not quite as strong as the “1”, but our brain is recognizing that a 4-beat pattern is made of a repeating 2-beat pattern.

Cut to the chase – our brain hears a natural emphasis on beats 1 and 3, and a lack of emphasis on beats 2 and 4. This actually CONTRIBUTES emphasis to the syllables of the words that land on (coincide with) beats 1 and 3. So, a syllable that arrives at the same time as beats 1 or 3 will be heard by the brain as a stressed syllable (emphasized). If that syllable is normally stressed when the word is spoken, the emphasis of the beats will make that word more understandable. However, if that syllable is normally unstressed when the word is spoken, the music will actually make that word more likely to be misheard. The same idea holds true for beats 2 and 4: if a syllable which is normally stressed when spoken lands on beat 2 or 4, the music will not offer the expected emphasis which would allow us to recognize the word properly.

For Those About to Argue, We Salute You

I know what you’re thinking. What about the many syllables which are sung between the beats? How do the stresses work in those cases? Think of it this way: cut a pie in half, you get two pieces. Cut each of those in half, you’ll have four pieces. Cut each of those in half, you’ll have eight pieces, etc. The pattern of “more stress / less stress” follows these divisions. Beats 2 and 4 offer a naturally weaker emphasis than beats 1 and 3. However, divide our four count into smaller beats – think “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” – suddenly you’ll notice that beats 2 and 4 offer a stronger emphasis than the “and‘s” in between the beats. In this way, you could line up a stressed syllable in a word with beats 2 or 4, with the unstressed syllables in the word landing on the “and‘s” in between the beats, and your word will be properly emphasized by your musical beats and will be heard naturally by a listener.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

As songwriters, when we design our lyrics and marry them to melody and rhythm, we have the power to use this phenomenon to make our lyric MORE understandable, and therefore more likely to elicit an emotional response, or LESS understandable, and therefore more likely to land on a listener with no emotional impact. Since we write music for the sake of conveying emotion, I know I’ll be keeping a close eye on how my lyrics line up with the music.

Thanks for sticking with me this far. I’ve tried to keep it short, so there’s room for more discussion and demonstration. Feel free to comment or contact us if you want to talk more about this!

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1 thought on “It’s Not Easy, Mondegreen”

  1. Terrific explanation of the fundamental elements of understanding stress syllables and the rhythmic subdivisions of a song. You can get to the same result intuitively but why not use this information and do it with intention. Thanks for the great read.

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