How to Enhance Your Music Listening Experience
Why reading lyrics makes a difference.
Posted Feb 18, 2015
Have you ever listened to the lyrics of a favorite song? I mean, reeeeeeally listened?
Better yet, have you ever read the lyrics of a familiar song while it has played? If so, what was that like for you?
In my experience, most people don’t pay much attention to lyrics. They may know the lyrics and be able to sing them, but they don't often pay attention to the words. It's a very different experience when reading lyrics while listening to the song.
I utilize this concept in my therapy practice through an experience called lyric analysis. After selecting a song appropriate for the client or group, I provide them with a print copy of the lyrics and a pen (or pencil or colored pencil or crayon…). I instruct the clients to listen to the song and mark words or phrases that stand out to them. After playing and singing through the song—incorporating live music is often more potent that listening to a recording—we process the words and phrases they indicated. Although there are variations to this basic outline, I commonly hear feedback from clients like:
I never knew that’s what she/he was singing!
I’ve never heard the song that way before.
I got a different meaning from that song than what I’ve gotten before.
In other words, there seems to be something about reading the lyrics of a song while listening to it, even a highly familiar song, that can deepen one’s understanding. Why is this?
The short answer is…we don’t know. The research is limited. There’s literature on the differences between the perception or production of singing and speech, as well as literature on neural networks underlying music and language, but little specific to reading lyrics while listening to music versus simply listening.
So what do we know? Well there does seem to be a difference in processing lyrics and melodies when we are tasked with recognizing a familiar song. These findings were reported by Saito and colleagues in a 2012 article published in PLoS One. When analyzing PET scan results, they found different neural networks involved in processing lyrics as compared to processing melodies. Focusing on the lyrics recruited areas implicated in word recognition (left fusiform gyrus) and visual processing (left inferior occipital gyrus), whereas melodies recruited areas involved in aural processing (right middle temporal sulcus and bilateral temporo-occipital cortices).
There may also be aspects of attention involved. In 2001, Bonnel and colleagues reported results from a study exploring whether different cognitive processing resources are used for language and music. Study participants listened to excerpts from French opera songs twice; the second time the excerpt was performed, the final word was either the same or different, and the final note was sung either on or off pitch. Participants were asked to report whether they detected a single difference (single task), or a difference to both (dual task). Results indicated similar levels of performance for both tasks, which prompted the researchers to conclude that words and melodies are processed by different, independent cognitive systems.
Thus, an amended short answer to the initial question on why reading lyrics while listening to music changes the experience is….we don’t know, but it appears that different cognitive systems are involved in processing lyrics and processing melodies. It follows, then—and makes intuitive sense—that the experience of listening to a song, even a familiar song, will be change when reading lyrics. It makes a difference.
Perhaps one day we will have a clearer understanding of this particular phenomenon. This may occur in a clinical context (e.g., through studying a music therapy-based lyric analysis experience) or through a basic science lens (e.g., comparing perception of reading lyrics while listening to music to simply listening to music).
In the meantime, though, I may pull up Sheryl Crow’s song Soak Up the Sun and decide whether getting her "45 on" refers to sunscreen, a music record, or a gun. Have you ever paid attention to that line before...?
Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.
Bonnel, A., Faita, F., Peretz, I. & Besson, M. (2001). Divided attention between lyrics and tunes of operatic songs: Evidence for independent processing. Perception & Psychophysics, 63(7), 1201-1213.
Saito, Y., Ishii, K., Sakuma, N., Kawasaki, K., Oda, K., & Mizusawa, H. (2012). Neural substrates for semantic memory of familiar songs: Is there an interface between lyrics and melodies? PLoS One, 7(9), e46354. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046354