Lesson #105: The Science of Misheard Lyrics

Every spring, my very favourite sports movie of all time, Bull Durham, gets busted out ahead of opening day of the baseball season. One of my favourite scenes in the movie (apart from the conference on the mound, which is one of best scenes in any sports movie ever) is the scene on the bus when Tim Robbins’ character is butchering Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’.*

That scene has been floating around in my head for the last couple of days because I admitted to a high school friend of mine that I’ve never seen Pretty in Pink, among others,** and she admonished me and sent me a clip of Jon Cryer’s character doing a whole bit from that particular song. Anyway, that’s what brought me to the science of it all.

It turns out that the reason we mishear lyrics is a combination of things…the fact that there’s a beat underneath it, the fact that the phrasing may be unnatural to speak, the fact that the singer is singing quickly. But mostly, it comes down to the fact that we’re not seeing the singer’s face when we hear the lyrics. Because we can’t read his or her lips, our brains are forced to fill in the gaps and what it fills it in as best it can with things it knows from previous experience. Which explains why there’s a bathroom on the right and not a bad moon on the rise. It seems that a person’s upbringing and personality also factor into the brain’s compensation.***

As a side note, if you ever want to conduct a fantastic experiment in misheard conversation, put a bunch of non-native speakers of a language from various parts of the world together in a room. It’s fantastic! The combination of their brains trying to compensate both for an accent with which they’re unfamiliar with and a language in which they’re not used to thinking will wreak havoc in hilarious ways. In fact, this also works with speakers of the same language who come from different parts of the world (see the other day’s comment on Cajun French, Canadian French and Belgian French, for example.)

Autobiographical note: I have spent a lot of time around baseball specifically and sports in general (in the business sense, not in the “I watch a lot of sports” sense — though that is also a true statement) and as a result, I have a lot of friends who are sports people. I also have a lot of friends who are movie quoting people. We can quote the hell out of Top Gun, Anchorman and The Hangover, but most of the sports movies we quote, for some reason, are baseball movies. If I had a dollar for every time one of my friends quoted a baseball movie, I’d never have to work again. Actually, if I had a dollar for every time one of my friends quoted the s’mores scene from The Sandlot, I’d never have to work again.

*In Nuke’s version, women get wooly because of all the stress.

**Sixteen Candles, Say Anything and Back to the Future.

***An interesting article about this here.

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