The Science of Misheard Song Lyrics


Mondegreens are often measures of experience. (This is why we all kept an eye on my brother when he heard the doo-wop song "Who Wrote the Book of Love" as "Who Let the Great Horse Die." It was probably an innocent mistake but we didn't want an amateur production of Equuson our hands.) This is why the signature phrases of most songs are misinterpreted.

The lyrics that defy cliche and break new ground are most likely to get misunderstood. "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy" might have still been outré in the 1960s when "Purple Haze" was written, but it was still more familiar than kissing the sky. We cobble together a semi-plausible lyric because we lack the experience to understand the real one. The people who are most likely to do this are the ones most lacking in experience.

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Kids learn by ear, and they know that they're still learning words, so they are particularly vulnerable to mondegreens. One class of children, when asked to copy out the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," wrote, "Oh say can you see, by the donzerly light."

Children, Language Learners, and Mondegreens

Children group words together, the way they hear them, in a stream of continuous syllables. They assume the meaning of "donzerly" will come later, when they hear a few more examples of the word.

We enunciate for small babies, but as children grow, they are expected to pick up individual words, many of which they've never been exposed to, in a stream of noise. Language learners also have difficulty distinguishing one word from another, which can run them into real trouble in business or medical settings.

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A surprising amount of tests for which words tend to throw people off involve exactly what we do in cars — listening to song lyrics. Children and English learners transcribe the words, and psychologists try to figure out what characteristics of the speaker, or the words, make people mentally squish words together.

Many researchers have found that mondegreens tend not to travel alone. Once people lose understanding of a sentence, they lose context as well, causing them to "hear" words that only resemble the actual words being uttered. People, especially adult English learners, are desperately trying to regain the thread of meaning, and make order out of a chaos of sounds.

Eventually they trick themselves into hearing something that the recognize, even if it doesn't make sense. What most people need, scientists find, is familiar points where they can get their bearings, and enter back into the thread of the conversation. If they can't get regular familiar points to orient themselves in a stream of sound, mondegreens will take over and give them fake points of familiarity.

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