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Blinded by the lyric? Study reveals why we get the words wrong

By Diane Mapes

Misheard song lyrics, sometimes referred to as mondegreens, are incredibly common, often hilarious and always a crowd pleaser, judging by the number of stories, Web sites such as KissThisGuy and AmIRight and water cooler chatter devoted to the topic.

Image: Freddie Mercury s
Molly Riley / Getty Images file

But while we can rattle off common misinterpreted lyrics (think "wrapped up like a douche" from Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light"), most of us don't really know exactly why it happens.

A new study by Dr. Wei Ji Ma, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., may finally reveal why so many of us think Freddie Mercury is singing "Beelzebub has a devil for a son named Steve" in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Turns out, unless you're looking at a person's face, it's much harder to understand what he or she is saying (or singing), according to Ma, who recently authored a study on lip-reading.

"Understanding speech can be difficult, especially when it's noisy," or overwhelmed by a loud music track, says Ma, whose study appeared in the March journal of Public Library of Science. "We found that this process can be helped a lot by looking at the speaker's face. If you have only sound information, you will sometimes make mistakes. But if you also have the visual information, the brain will combine those two pieces and get a better sense of what's being said."

In the small study, Ma had 33 volunteers watch videos of people saying words with different levels of background noise, then had participants report what they thought they heard. He found that, depending on the noise level, participants got the words right a mere 10 percent of the time when there were only sound cues. Seeing a person's lips move improved understanding of the spoken words up to 60 percent.

The brain is like a police detective interviewing various witnesses after a crime, says Ma.

Visual information is one witness; auditory information is another. But just as in a criminal investigation, the witnesses can sometimes get the facts wrong. The brain basically weighs all the information it has and makes its best possible guess based on its own biases. Which  is where that infamously wrong Creedence Clearwater Revival lyric, "There's a bathroom on the right" instead of "There's a bad moon on the rise" comes into play.

"What seems to be happening with misunderstood song lyrics is that what you hear is not always reliable," says Ma. "It's noisy, the singer is singing fast, he's not articulating well or maybe he has an accent. The sound information is uncertain, that's step one."

Step two is when the brain combines the sound information with whatever other information it has at its disposal, including prior beliefs or expectations.

"We hear some (expressions) more often than others," says Ma. "And we often hear about bathrooms, or we'll ask about a bathroom at a restaurant and be told that it's on the right. That's something we've heard many times. It's much less common to hear a sentence like 'There's a bad moon on the rise.' The brain will combine what it hears — the sounds — with those prior beliefs, those expectations. If the sound is not very reliable, than the prior beliefs will have more effect."

Upbringing and personality may also have an impact on how a person hears or mishears a song lyric, says Ma.

"I was on one of those lyrics Web sites and found a line from "Bohemian Rhapsody" that goes 'Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me'," he says. "But Beelzebub is not a very common word. I saw that someone had misheard that as 'The algebra has a devil put aside for me.' Maybe that's someone who really hates math."

Is there any possible way to avoid mishearing song lyrics?

"If you're watching (the video) while listening to the song, you're going to do much better at understanding the lyrics correctly than if you're listening to the music on your MP3," says Ma.

After hearing Ma explain his research, I must admit that years ago I used to mock my little sister for mixing up the lyrics to a certain America song. Instead of riding through the desert on a "horse with no name," she was galloping across the dunes on a "horse with no mane."

I have my own mangled version of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." Instead of "when the rain washes you free you'll know," I sang at the top of my lungs. "When Loraine watches you clean your nose."

Beyond understanding why we get the songs wrong, Ma's research could help clear up other verbal miscommunication problems. If you want to make sure someone understands exactly what you're saying, face the person when speaking and don't cover your mouth with your fingers.