The Language(s) of Music

This post is a musical indulgence with a linguistic twist. I was hoping to share some of the daring musicians who have taken language and transformed it into a much more versatile free form within their music. I have collected songs by musicians which meddle with the usual language parameters ,revive old languages, invent new ones and combine already existing ones.

Musicians who use a mixture of languages:

This category was the one which was the easiest to populate.Music is often called ‘Universal’ most notably because of its transcendental nature when it comes to its audience. There isn’t really a prerequisite to listening to music, you don’t have to have studied it as a subject to feel like you can appreciate it. Nietzsche as well as Plato identify the freedom of music in a sense. For both of these philosophers music is a pure form of art which doesn’t necessarily imitate, but can be imitated in the imagination. It gives birth to images and feeling, but doesn’t necessarily draw from them. In this respect it is more of a free form and more accessible than other forms of art. The addition of language can then become its only restriction and one way the following musicians have overcome this is by using a multitude of languages.

Manu Chao- Me Gustas Du
(French, Spanish, English, reminds me of code switching because it happens throughout)

Gogol Bordello- Trans Continental Hustle
(Not too different from Manu Chao. They both draw inspiration from the musical culture of the languages they use, in Bordello’s case it is a real Gypsy mele of culture in music and language.)

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)- Wild World (Bana, Bana)
(Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, uses a lot of Islamic music and language in his more recent work. This reworking of his ‘Wild World’ is great example of language and music melting together, there are two languages and two styles of music whih he combines here and the two often become indistinguishable.)

Jacques Brel- Marieke
(French and Flemmish are both used here. Again it is very similar to code switching.)

The next few are somewhat different because the language mixing isn’t so much throught the song but it is still there.

Francis Cabrel- La Corrida
(For the impatient: the Spanish comes in at the end of the song but very effectively takes on the form of a last lament.)

Nick Mulvey-Didn’t Have Time
(Nick Mulvey is an unsigned musician who has taken a lot of his inspiration from Zimbabwean, Malian and Congolese music. He uses the languages as well as the traditional riffs in his music.

Cheb Khaled- Aicha
(The famous Franco-Arabic rendition of Aicha. Again there is a language change into Arabic at the end of the song and a very strong Arabic influence in the music throughout. The song became a hit in Europe and is still played often in the old French speaking colonies in the Middle East- I couldn’t get away from it even if I had wanted to when I was in Morocco.)

Musicians who take inspiration from old languages:

Jeff Buckley- Corpus Christi
(Jeff Buckley sings an old Middle/Early Modern English carol. The language is an old variation of English and is in some cases incomprehensible to the English speaker today.)

Slavi Trifanov- Jovano, Jovanke
(This Bulgarian pop-folk singer takes a lot of inspiration in old Bulgarian and Macedonian songs. This is an example of one such song which combines old Bulgarian and Macedonian.)

Musicians who have gone outside of the parameters of known languages:

Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five- Heebie Jeebies
(This is rumoured to be one of the earliest versions of Skat which came about as Louis Armstrong forgot the lyrics to the song. If this was indeed the case then that just shows to what extent the manipulation of language can create music. Language in skat metamorphoses into music.)

Ella Fitzgerald- One Note Samba
(Again a very good example of skat where language melts into music.)

Django Reinhardt- Nagasaki
(Nagasaki is mostly sung in English however it uses some language mutation and just a general play on words.)

The next few are quite an interesting set of songs taken from a video game. They were written with the future sound of the languages in mind, showing what language might develop into:


There is an interview with the artist of the songs, Emi Evans available (click here). She explains how she went about writing each song for the different languages she was asked to draw from.


About computeinanotherlanguage

QMUL Student doing languages and computing :)
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One Response to The Language(s) of Music

  1. Martin says:

    Hi Vicky,

    Very interesting post! And what an excellent list of musicians, singers, composers!

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