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On listening to foreign music: Why songs matter beyond their lyrics

<p>The Effron Music Building of the Lewis Center for the Arts.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

The Effron Music Building of the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lamp. Active beginning in the early 2000s, Lamp is a Japanese band that draws on a number of disparate styles, including jazz, bedroom pop (insofar as the genre was conceived at the time), and pop rock. Blending all of these genres into something greater than the sum of its parts, Lamp writes minimally-produced songs over which the lead singer’s vocals can soar.

I love to play this kind of music for a number of occasions, whether it be heading to class, as background music while studying, or something else entirely. I’ve found, honestly, that I probably listen to it and its ilk — ’70s and ’80s Japanese pop and K-pop — far more often than music with lyrics written in English. In particular, I think I’ve come to love this music because I don’t understand it.

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Let me explain a little bit more. In not understanding Japanese, Korean, or almost any other foreign language, I get the chance to not have to care about what precisely a singer is trying to tell me. This isn’t something I can tune out in English, for obvious reasons; it’s fairly clear to me that, in Kacey Musgraves’ song “camera roll” from her recent “star-crossed,” there’s a sense of lament over a dissolved relationship that one can’t ignore or reinterpret.

In the history of classical music, this latter sort of writing, where the composer seeks to advance a particular narrative or storyline, is called “programmatic.” It appears in such famous pieces as Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” which is particularly notable for how clearly it signposts the classic story by Goethe of the same name — the titular character’s death “scene” is marked by a highly suggestive unison descent in the strings, indicating the literal falling of Egmont’s severed head (or, depending on interpretations, that of his mistress Klärchen).

It goes without saying that there is clearly a place for this kind of music. Programmatic music is, of course, the basis for genres like opera itself, and there is a brilliance to the nature of clear storytelling through music that has given rise to iconic motifs, like Prokofiev’s menacing bass line march in the “Montagues and Capulets” excerpt of his own “Romeo and Juliet,” or the undulating waves in the strings that return time and time again in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.”

These kinds of programmatic elements and devices are alive and well in today’s music as well. I was recently informed that the chord progression in Lorde’s “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)” is a reversal of that in her earlier “Ribs.” I can see the value in this kind of device, as well as the very literal interpretation that it represents a reversal of the views and mindsets in “Ribs,” but it does not change my opinion of the song, nor of the album as a whole. In a piece, any sort of extrinsic musical device ought to be in service of the music itself — not the other way around.

Put simply, there are times when I can’t bring myself to care.

We listen to music largely because the intricacies of well-crafted harmonic and melodic structures in great pieces or songs make us feel on levels that words alone cannot. To dwell on classical music a bit longer, I love listening to works without caring about any relevant external influences, because it lets me craft my own understanding. The original poem upon which Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” is based is a beautiful one, chronicling sin and forgiveness, and yet I’d argue that the piece loses nothing when removed from it; the cello entrance in the fourth movement is just as ravishingly beautiful, and the textural nuances which follow it lose none of their percolating radiance.

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The same, in fact, applies to more modern, popular music, when removed from its lyrics. As I write this, I still have no idea what is being said in Lamp’s “Behind The Moon Shadow,” but I feel I understand it in my own way, relating it to my own experiences and feelings. The diminished and augmented dissonances of the understated accompaniment — when paired with the extraordinarily pastoral melody in unison throughout the song – evoke a melancholic happiness, like a resigned relief at having returned to a dark, empty home after a long journey.

It should be clear that this reflection is deeply personal. I find versatility in being able to enjoy music when I can apply it to myself without being told how to feel. At the same time, I hope that the above consideration of great programmatic works over the centuries is sufficiently indicative of the fact that there’s certainly a place and time for them as well. As for myself, however, I’ll spend a bit longer immersing myself in music that I can’t — and don’t want to — understand.

Aster Zhang is an Associate Editor for The Prospect who writes about music and food, often specific to the Princeton community. They can be reached at brentonz@princeton.edu, or on Twitter at @aster_zh.

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