The wonder of listening to international music

Sally Dobie

The idea of listening to music in a different language has been around for a long time. One of the first forms of it was opera: a dramatic theatre performance accompanied by an orchestra and singers. Some of the most famous operas are Italian, French and German; but that didn’t stop them becoming famous worldwide.

But how has this concept changed for a modern audience? With opera you would still see a visual representation of meaning, but in today’s world, what attracts people to listen to music they can’t understand?

Nicole Russin-McFarland, a film director and film score composer, listens to traditional opera but also listens to a range of modern foreign-language music, including Mexican, Bollywood, Scandinavian and Korean music.

Russin-McFarland, 32, said one of the reasons she listens to such a variety of music is she gets bored easily. “I listen to keep my mind going,” she said, “It’s like exercise. If you quit exercising, you get flabby. You want your brain to easily turn on the music thinking switch.”

As a film score composer herself, Russin-McFarland said one of the great things about foreign-language is it gives an insight into what people from other nations like to listen to. She said there’s also a different structure and range of notes used depending on each country.

“If it were a heart rate monitor, some English language music might look almost like a straight line and Scandinavian music would have ups and downs. Japanese music can be more whimsical, as can Korean pop. It’s good if you feel stuck in a rut.”

Michael Huxley, founder of the travel blog Bemused Backpacker, said listening to a country’s music makes him feel more connected to the place. “It is a reminder of my time and adventures in each place.”

Russin-McFarland believes that every language has a different way of song-writing, and trying to fit that style into a different language can be like “fitting your body into too small a size of jeans and trying to make it work.”

For Huxley, music is more about the connections and memories than the lyrics. “Honestly English language music doesn’t have that emotional connection for me, unless it is part of a specific trip, like for example I went to Space Camp in Huntsville last year and they played StarMan by Bowie all the time, so every time I hear it now it reminds me of working with NASA!”

Russin-McFarland shared this sentiment, and said music was about “reaching people beyond the language of the lyrics.” Using her favourite opera, Bizet’s “Carmen”, as an example, she said “before I knew what was going on in the lyrics 100 per cent, I didn’t have to understand much because the musical cues in each song alert you of what is going on.”

Occasionally there are foreign songs or foreign artists whose tracks become famous among English speakers, the best examples being Luis Fonsi’s track Despacito and another track “Kiss and Make Up”, released in 2018 by Dua Lipa featuring Korean girl group BlackPink.

Sally Dobie

Image Credit: Shauna Power