Why English is the first language of music

You may laugh about romantic song lyrics that sing about “the moon in June,” but as far as I can see English is probably the language most suited of all to songwriting. Here’s why…

Here in Europe, every year we celebrate the vast TV extravaganza that everyone loves to hate – the Eurovision Song Contest.  This contest to find the “best” European pop song has been going for more than 50 years now and gets bigger every year. Especially since the dispersal of the USSR, the contest has welcomed a whole raft of new faces. However eligibility for the song contest is about geographical location, not the dictats pf the European Union, and in a typical year more than 43 countries take part.

So this is no small reality show. According to Wikipedia annual Eurovision audiences run anywhere from 100 million to 600 million, in countries as far away as south-east Asia and South America.  Although many winners disappear into oblivion, it’s worth noting that such classic acts as ABBA, Dana and Bucks Fizz started at Eurovision.

Needless to say politics have crawled out from the woodwork and some of the pan-European voting trends have been accused of being partisan – never mind the music, you’ve got to vote for your neighbors if you don’t want them to cross your border to dump their garbage.

In 2011, the winners were from Azerbaijan. And their main choice of language for their lyrics? English.

So songs in many languages, then?

No. I would say well over half, if not three-quarters of the Eurovision songs are performed in total or in part in English. A few throw in a couple of lines in French, as that is the second language used for commentating and voting returns. But English reigns supreme.

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If you’re interested in music and poetry, check out these other articles and tutorials here on HTWB
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Quite apart from English being the third most widely spoken native language in the world, it also has some very handy features that make it a joy to use in writing music. When you listen to some of the Eurovision entries that are sung in, say, Spanish or the language of one of the eastern European countries, you can almost visualize the musical composer writing in lots of eighth and sixteenth (very short) notes just to keep up with the staccato words and uncomfortable grammar.

What’s so special about English?

By comparison with many other languages, for songwriting English is a breeze. Lots of opportunities for rhyming lyrics, nice short words that mean a lot so you can relax the musical pace (or not) as you please, pronunciation that doesn’t require you to contort your mouth and tongue so your face looks like a tumble dryer at work, plus plenty of words ending in convenient vowel sounds that are easily “singable,” as Jacqui Dankworth described it when I interviewed her for my series on lyrics and songwriting.

I would say we who write (music, poetry and everything else) in English are very lucky to use a language that is so flexible and obliging. Do you agree?

NB: if you want to read more about writing song lyrics, check out my masterclass series here on HowToWriteBetter.net…
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Now, let’s make your writing sing:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. As somebody who struggles to persuade English people to learn a foreign language and not to rely on English all the time, I have to admit it:

    YOU ARE RIGHT 😉

    • The English language drives us doo-lally for a lot of reasons (inconsistencies of grammar, etc.) so at least we should be grateful that it works well for song-writing, if nothing else!

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