There’s always that awkward moment when your friend in the passenger seat of your car asks you to turn on the music, and all you have is an Icelandic playlist set to an infinite loop. The constant groans from my family once they hear Icelandic occurs so often that I now find myself hearing their reactions in my sleep. You could call it a problem, but I’ve found that it’s now almost impossible to appreciate english lyrics as much as the lyrics of a foreign language. The effect of this is an iPod that’s beginning to have more music in Icelandic than it is in my native language. When these consistent passenger seat riders ask me why they must put up with music they don’t understand, I just simply smile, shrug, and tell them, “well, because it’s beautiful.” But, there’s always more to it than that.
I remember nervously walking through the aisles of CD stores as a young child, shuffling through music score after music score until I settled on a very attractive copy of the first Harry Potter soundtrack. This was my first instrumental track, and I held on to it very tightly (proven by a small crack still on the front of the case) as I made my first CD purchase. I was told by a famous children’s author, Neal Shusterman, who spoke in my first grade class the week before, that instrumental scores were the best way to fabricate emotion inside of the mind. He declared that all of his books were written from the thoughts and stories he compiled into his head as he listened to these particular scores. I remember one very intelligent first grader who raised his hand to ask why we couldn’t just listen to music with lyrics, because they already had stories attached to them and did the work for us. I don’t remember Shusterman’s response, but I remember the way that first soundtrack made me feel. At the age of 7 I sat in bed with Harry Potter curled inside of my CD Diskman, and felt alive. There was an energy that flowed with each violin note, and I could choose how it made me feel. There were no words to dictate a response, only foreign sounds lacking in any sort of attached meaning. I came to love instrumental music, and a few years later I stumbled upon Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partirò,” a song that my father was very fond of. It had lyrics, but the fact that they were indistinguishable and in Italian made all the difference. I suddenly made the realization that Bocelli’s voice was the most beautiful instrument of all. It was undecipherable, yet I could simply feel the emotion in it, without having a clue as to what he was expressing. I think I understood then that I felt more fondness towards music I couldn’t understand, simply because it didn’t dictate or decide any aspect of how I was supposed to feel. It wasn’t forced, yet I wanted it to force it’s emotion through me.
Years and years later, still with a high regard for instrumental and foreign music, I discovered Sigur Rós. If you haven’t read about how that first instance with the band made me feel, you can read about it here.
“I felt like the music was expressing some sort of essence beyond anything I could every truly perceive or experience. I felt a collective consciousness between myself, the notes, and the fog settling onto the trees outside of my window. It was such an ethereal feeling, as if it captured every single hum of whatever this thing called Being actually was. There were silent rockslides, waterfalls falling into reverse back up into the sky…”
I realized that Icelandic music made me feel this exact same way and, in my opinion, was aesthetically more pleasing than listening to other languages. It had to do with the way breath escaped the lips of every singer, like whispers that sounded in between specific words. To all those car passengers asking me why I listen to foreign music I can’t comprehend, this is why. It is beautiful in such a way that it transports me into a new kind of ethereal. It’s comforting; it lets me build a home inside of it, and I often stay for awhile. I’ve been quietly transposed into this music for months, with no desire to escape.
But now that I am learning Icelandic, it isn’t all that incomprehensible. I cannot even express how rewarding it is to hear a foreign word recognized in a song. I have to keep myself from jumping out of my car’s seat with excitement as I’m listening to Icelandic on the highway. It is a grand epiphany, to be able to say, “Yes! I understood that!” and really mean it. And that’s only the start. After months, you start recognizing word groups, phrases, ideas surfacing from the lyrical progressions. As more and more makes sense, it feels like a giant crowd of people slowly standing up in their stadium seats, one by one by one, and then in clusters, until everyone is up and cheering and vibrantly alive. And they are cheering for you.
I’ve been thinking about why music is more effective than listening to Icelandic news, or Icelandic documentaries. It seems obvious: music has a rhythm, it has a way of adhering itself into the recesses of your mind. Think back to the last news article you remembered, word for word. There isn’t one, is there? Now how about the last song you had stuck in your head, or line of poetry. Numerous studies have been conducted on how and why the mind retains lyrical information better, and scientists have an entire basis of fact to prove how accurate it all really is.
Studying a language outside of the native country definitely calls for some slow, easy to understand examples of pronunciation. What better way to understand the flow of a language than to listen to some delicate music? In most cases, the words are clear and direct, and you can often catch some of the hidden sounds you can’t hear in everyday speech.
I want to leave you with a song that I am very fond of, by the very lovely band Valdimar. These vocals are by Valdimar Guðmundsson, and are a wonderful example of the flow that the modern Icelandic language possesses when sung.