Adele singing about ‘cheesy butter cups’? Why we sometimes hear the wrong lyrics…


Have you ever heard something in a song, then second guessed what you heard because it sounded completely out of context and made no sense?

Sometimes the words you hear don’t not make any sense, sound a little too racy for the sentence, or seem just vile.

When you hear "the lonely Starbucks lovers" in Taylor Swift’s popular track Blank Space, instead of "got a long list of ex-lovers", or Adele's background singers singing "You're gonna wish she never had red meat, cheesy butter cup, rolling in the deep" in her hit single Rolling in the Deep – these are just a couple examples of a mondegreen.

What’s funny is that the title mondegreen is a mondegreen. The name is believed to have come from an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line in a poem her mother used to read to her when she was young.

ear anatomy divisions how the ear hears mondegreen

Another name for the phenomenon hails from Japan and it’s called a soramimi, which means "empty ear" or "mishearing".

There is, however, a slight difference between the two. While a soramimi is indeed a mishearing of lyrics, it specifically refers to understanding lyrics in one language as sounding similar to lyrics in another.

In South Africa, we can relate to both, given our 11 official languages and the music created in these different languages.

In countries where English is a foreign language, people struggle as well. A classic example is the contestant on the Bulgarian Music Idol show, who sang an English song, Ken Lee.

When babies are learning to speak and adults are in the process of learning a new language, mondegreens can be expected.

Many people learn by ear, and when listening to natives speaking the language, they pick up a collection of syllables, but have difficulty grouping those syllables to create existing words others are able to comprehend.

When people who are learning a new language hear individual words, they may have greater pronunciation and comprehension success when learning words that don't sound familiar.

A communication glitch

According to The New Yorker, a likely reason for mondegreens is that we simply mishear what’s been said or sung.

Hearing basically happens in two parts: where we hear something, and then the processing of what we heard. But somewhere between hearing and processing parts, there’s a communication glitch.

Sound needs to travel through the ear canal, past the ear drum into the middle ear, and then to the inner ear where the cochlea helps the sound reach the auditory nerve. It must reach the auditory nerve in order for the brain to process the sound so you can understand it.

ear anatomy divisions how the ear hears mondegreen

It’s easy to mishear the lyrics of a song because of the presence of instruments and musical effects, which may drown out the words. 

Another point is that we may need another sense to help us out, such as sight. Often when we’re listening to music we don't actually see the artist’s mouth, but if we’re watching the performance, we may be able to make out some of the lyrics by lipreading.

Even though you may think hearing loss is mostly a result of faulty ear components, your brain plays a major part as well. Very little has been done to uncover the precise reason behind the phenomenon of mondegreens, but Dr Timothy Steele states that there may be a disconnect between hearing and comprehension. This happens as a result of a "busy" environment that causes your brain to become overwhelmed by the different sounds it is trying to process.

However, if you think there is something seriously amiss with your hearing, you may want to have your hearing tested.

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