The Science of Misheard Song Lyrics


There is an actual official term for when you hear "excuse me while I kiss the sky" in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" as "excuse me while I kiss this guy." Your meaningful misheard lyrics are called "mondegreens," and their study can have real psychological significance.

The Mondegreens

We've all had those awkward moments. A group of friends is singing in a car, and suddenly, someone says the wrong word. And everyone looks at each other, wondering how that person heard the wrong song lyrics, or whether they themselves are wrong.

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These little misunderstandings are common, but most people don't know that there is an official title for them. It came from a popular essay by writer Sylvia Wright, where she recalled when her mother read a certain book of poems to her. One of the verses was as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

Readers will be glad to know that Lady Mondegreen was spared the slaughter, but only because she never existed. The actual last line of the verse was, "And laid him on the green." Wright christened these misheard lyrics, which often make the poem or song better for the listener, "mondegreens." The title caught on.

Mondegreens and What They Mean

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Sometimes the mondegreens make more sense than the original lyrics, but such a happy coincidence is a rare event. What's interesting is everyone has an explanation of their particular mondegreen.

I heard "I can feel it coming in the air tonight," as "I can hear it coming in the yellow night," well into my college years, and thought Phil Collins was just being poetic. A friend of mine claims both her parents, independently, heard Creedence Clearwater Revival's "There's a bad moon on the rise," as "There's a bathroom on the right."

She had to be born, grow up, listen to the song herself, and correct them before they even considered that they were wrong. When she asked them how they thought the lyrics were directions to the bathroom, her father answered, "I just figured they were stoned." Which is as good an explanation as any.

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