Illustration by Ben Beechener

Endowed with being a music lover x Linguistics student, you would have thought I’d have at least once pondered the relationship between music and language, but it was actually a conversation with a friend that sparked my initial curiosity for writing this article. The conversation centred on the difference between being a ‘lyrics kind of music listener’ and enjoying a song for the music-y part itself. I concluded that whilst I do love and appreciate the wit of Childish Gambino’s verses or the decadent way that James Blake sings about Jameela Jamil, I do generally find that lyrics alone aren’t enough to carry a song or an album. This perhaps isn’t the best sign for someone that studies ‘words’ and literature but, for me, music has always been about a more sentient experience that comes from the artists’ choices of melody, rhythm, tonality etc. (in the least pretentious way possible). The ‘lyrics listener’ vs. ‘music listener’ dichotomy is a common categorisation thrown around by music appreciators and has brought about many questions relating to how we consume music in the 21st century. More specifically, many have questioned if there are enough ‘lyric listeners’ for good lyrics to be a prerequisite for a song’s commercial success, or can a song rely solely on a catchy melody to top the charts? 

This is where language comes in and, having just departed on my year abroad to Salamanca, it occurred to me that language barriers might be a good way to test this theory; ‘can music still be popular when the listener can understand next to nothing of what’s being said?’. Of course, the simple answer is ‘yes’, but it appears that this has been something of a more recent phenomenon. For example, the past few years have marked a seismic shift in appetite for Latin music in the English-speaking world, perhaps spearheaded by Luis Fonsi’s 2017 hit “Despacito” featuring the one and only Daddy Yankee. Since “Despacito” became Spotify’s third-most-streamed track worldwide, those artists who hadn’t yet succumbed to performing in English have seen continuing success and we’ve seen a significant number of artists break through such as Bad Bunny, Rosalía, J Balvin, and Maluma. 

In particular, Bad Bunny’s staggering success deserves praise. His discography epitomises the rise of Reggaeton and a more global appreciation for Spanish-language music. Until now, singing in English was generally considered a prerequisite to commercial success but, despite the Puerto Rican rapper performing only in Spanish, his 8.3 billion global streams in 2020 allowed him to take up his position as most streamed artist on Spotify last year. These statistics are hard to argue with but huge cultural strides are also being made, whether it’s Jennifer Lopez and Shakira headlining last year’s Super Bowl or Rosalía being featured on the January 2021 cover of American Vogue. And, needless to say, this is not limited to Hispanic music, with the K-pop band BTS recently becoming the first group from Asia to reach five billion streams on Spotify. In fact, I can still clearly recall a whole room of people getting extremely excited by a BTS song on the Park End cheese floor in my first year, which I think we can all agree is evidence enough for diffusion of music across language barriers. 

Thus, it looks to be that a swing in pop music is taking place and, as Bad Bunny tells Vogue, the popularity of Hispanic music amongst English speakers is perhaps solely down to the “feeling”: of the music: “I truly think it’s the feeling of our music and the rhythm…Music is one of the elements in life that is universal – the language doesn’t matter. It’s the emotional tone to the lyrics and the beat.”.  Accordingly, the 21st century popular music scene appears to be favouring more and more the ‘music listener’. Such a phenomenon has allowed for a much more rapid globalisation of Spotify playlists, where a listener doesn’t rely on understanding the lyrics in order to enjoy a song.

It seems that music has this ability to evoke emotion and bring people together without any words in a manner which has spurred some critics to dub it a ‘universal language’ of sorts. Through just its melody, studies have shown that listeners tend to be pretty accurate at detecting the emotions conveyed in an unfamiliar music idiom. On a basic level, higher pitch, more fluctuations in rhythm and a faster tempo convey happiness, while the opposite connotes sadness. This theory is comparable to the linguistic concept of prosody where almost the same features such as pitch, rhythm, and tempo are used in order to convey emotion in speech and are considered universal across all languages and, perhaps, it is these melodic cues mimicking universal prosodic cues that allow for music to cross linguistic barriers. To elaborate on the words of Bad Bunny, music appears to have this ability to elicit those primal feelings that are at the core of the shared human experience and, to this end, lyrics are not always necessary. 

Having said this, the monolingual Brits have a long way to go regarding their international music journey, especially given the fact that the UK public tend to fall into the lyrics category of listener. Whilst there has been an increase in English speakers wanting to expand their playlists to include other cultures and languages, there does seem to be somewhat of a set of criteria for non-English artists going mainstream in this part of the world. Take, for example, “Despacito”, “Danza Kuduro”, or even “Gangnam Style”, where the chorus melody itself is short and repetitive, and the emotion behind the lyrics is simple and obviously conveyed. Listeners are certainly far more comfortable with a catchy melody and a small number of foreign words that if repeated over and over they will learn easily enough. Shockingly, the national average of languages spoken in the UK is only 1.4 and it seems that the curse of English being a partial lingua franca has extended itself into the music industry with Brits being reticent to give artists like China’s Kris Wu or Germany’s Kraftwerk a try. 

But, whether it leaves the Brits behind or not, the upwards trend in the globalisation of music continues and, according to the Rolling Stone magazine, the non-English language repertoire is beginning to dominate all over the world with Ariana Grande being the only artist in the entire YouTube Top 10 whose language was English in 2018. We are certainly witnessing an epochal change and, even if one might not consider music a universal ‘language’, I would argue this is only just the beginning of it becoming a far more globalised and shared form of art that has the power to unite communities across borders.