Music can be a wonderful learning experience on a number of levels; they can teach about love and heartbreak, about politics and culture, history and more. On a more basic level, lyrics can be a wonderful source for learning the meaning of words – and not only slang. Following back ones journey through language and vocabulary is extremely difficult to trace. However, there’s a few songs, bands and albums that directly taught me about the meaning of words.
As a young teenager, there were a number of bands with names that taught me about words. Growing up, there have been countless more. This is by no means a full or even particularly extensive list, just a few examples from my own personal history and the music I listened to in the earliest stage of my discovering, and subsequent falling in love with music. It’s interesting to think about how music can teach us on such a basic level – and many of you will no doubt be able to add some of your own.
There’s a whole lot of band names that are made up of words that I learnt the definition of directly as a result of discovering these bands, and looking up the names. This includes Placebo, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Incubus, Tenacious D and The Raconteurs. There were also bands whose names reference events and people, such as The Dillinger Escape Plan, Operation Ivy, Dead Kennedys and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and songs like Sufjan Stevens’ John Wayne Gacy. I discovered Aldous Huxley by way of The Doors (as in, his book The Doors Of Perception) and while looking up Venus In Furs by the Velvet Underground, I learnt about Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, original author of the book the song is based on. A special mention here goes to Manic Street Preachers and The Holy Bible, an album which singlehandedly taught me more about modern political history than my entire time at high school, and I am not exaggerating by one iota.
Other albums included Pearl Jam‘s Binaural, plus Yield, the American word for a ‘give way’ road sign. Nirvana’s In Utero, too (yes, I was a big grunge fan), Amnesiac by Radiohead, Tool’s Parabola and Schism, The Pixies’ Caribou, and more. Similarly, countless songs – and the lyrics within them – taught me words too. Radiohead had a number of tracks including Myxomatosis and Electioneering and Placebo’s track Haemoglobin, while Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks taught me what a levee actually was. One of the most distinct memories I have of learning a new word came while listening to Pearl Jam’s track Crazy Mary. There’s a line with the lyric “Little country store with a sign tacked to the side, said ‘NO L-O-I-T-E-R-I-N-G ALLOWED.'” – thus, I learnt the word loitering. Hilltop Hoods‘ early single The Nosebleed Section undoubtedly taught me exactly what a nosebleed section was, and The White Stripes’ Astro clued me in on Tesla years before I’d ever heard of Elon Musk.
Furthermore, there’s non-English words and phrases I’ve learnt from songs. Depeche Mode is French for ‘fast fashion’ or ‘hurried fashion,’ The Offspring certainly taught me how to count to five in Spanish, while Jane’s Addiction’s album Ritual De Lo Habitual taught me a little Spanish, both in its album title (“ritual of the habit”) and an Spanish intro to first first Stop. Roxy Music’s Bittersweet has an entire verse in German that’s stuck with me to this day; it opens with the line, “Nein, das ist nicht das ende der welt” – “no, it is not the end of the world.”
This is only a tiny selection, but an idea of how music can help teach in such interesting ways, and can add to one’s vocabulary through names and lyrics.
How about you? What have you learnt through song?
Image: Up Beacon