Space & Innovation

The Science of Misheard Song Lyrics

Your meaningful misheard lyrics are called 'mondegreens,' and their study can have real psychological significance.

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.

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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German photographer Martin Klimas' latest exhibition, a series of images he calls "Sonic Sculptures," is so explosive and colorful, it just may change the way you look -- yes, look -- at music.

For the project, Klimas put vibrantly colored paint on a diaphragm over a speaker, turned up the volume on selected music and snapped photos of what the New York Times Magazine described as "a 3-D take on Jackson Pollack."

"I use an ordinary speaker with a funnel-shaped protective membrane on top of it," he told the Smithsonian. "I pour paint colors onto the rubber membrane, and then I withdraw from the setup."

The above photo shows Prince's "Sign 'O' The Times."

Klimas' project was inspired by the research of Hans Jenny, a German physician, scientist and father of cymatics, which is the study of wave phenomena. Jenny photographed his experiments of the effects sound vibrations had on various materials such as fluids, powders and liquid paste. Jenny placed these substances on a rubber drum head and, as it vibrated, he found different tones produced different patterns in the materials. Low tones made powders assemble in straight lines, while deeper tones made for more complex patterns.

The above photo reflects Phillip Glass' "Music With Changing Parts."

Klimas used a variety of music -- everyone from Prince to James Brown and Charlie Parker to Phillip Glass. He says he leaves the "creation of the picture to the sound itself" and, after cranking the volume, steps back. Once the paint starts jumping, a sound-trigger device that detects noise spikes automatically takes photos.

"I mostly selected works that were particularly dynamic, and percussive," Klimas said. Though he used songs from a variety of music styles and eras, many of the tracks chosen were by musicians who had ties to the visual art world, such as the Velvet Underground and John Cage.

Before they struck gold with "Get Lucky," Daft Punk got dance floors thumping with "Around the World" shown here.

Klimas spent six months completing the project in his Dusseldorf studio and took about 1,000 shots to get his final 212 images. He went through 18.5 gallons of paint, on average of 6 ounces per shot, and blew two speakers while cranking the tunes. He used a Hasselblad camera with a shutter speed of 1/7000th a second.

The above image is a photo of Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz, A Collective Improvisation."

Blown speakers and exactitudes aside, Klimas said "the most annoying thing was cleaning up the set thoroughly after every single shot." Check out more of Klimas' work on his website (www.martin-klimas.de), or better yet, if you're in New York City, stop by the Foley Gallery on the Lower East Side. There you can find his new exhibition, "SONIC," which opened earlier this month.

The above photo illustrates Pink Floyd's "On the Run."