Why do we Misunderstand Lyrics Sometimes?

by Paul Martin -

Why do we Misunderstand Lyrics Sometimes?

Why do we Misunderstand Lyrics Sometimes? / rgbstock.com

I just read about a study that was conducted on why we sometimes hear the lyrics of a song, and think that the artist is saying something that they aren’t.  I know that I have been surprised to find that songs I’ve thought that I have known were actually saying something different than I would have guessed.  There are some songs that I still catch myself on, and I have to remind myself of the actual lyrics every time.

Misheard lyrics are sometimes called mondegreens, taken from a Scottish ballad called “The Bonny Earl of Murray.”  The actual lyrics are”they have slain the Earl of Murray, and laid him on the green,” which were misheard as “they have slain the Earl of Murray, and Lady Mondegreen.”

Research was conducted with 33 volunteers watching videos of people saying words with varying degrees of background noise.  The participants would then report on what words they thought they heard.  Some of the words would also be spoken without video of their mouths moving.  The participants would tend to get words right a mere ten percent of the time when there were only sound cues and no visuals.  This percentage jumps to sixty when they saw a person’s lips moving.

It turns out that there are a view variables that can effect how we hear things, being upbringing, visual and audible cues, personality, or personal belief. Dr. Wei Ji Ma, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., conducted the study which is published in the March journal of Public Library of Science.

When you’re listening to music, the brain is weighing all the information it has and makes its best possible guess based on its own biases. This 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.

We hear about a bathroom far more often than we hear the phrase “bad moon.”  And if we’ve been to restaurants, we may have heard the phrase “the bathroom is on the right” at some point.  In the song, if you’ve never read the lyric before, it kind of lends itself to that misinterpretation.

“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.”

Pretty interesting stuff, and it explains a lot of why things like that happen.

Want more Hilarious Stories about Misheard Lyrics?

There are some websites that are dedicated to looking at lyrics that have been misheard, and people submit new ones all the time.  One is called “KissThisGuy.com” based on the lyric ” ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” which has been misheard as ” ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”  Or has it?

I found one lyric that I found to be pretty funny.  The story behind the lyrics:

My 6 year-old grandnephew was singing the second verse of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in the back seat of my brother’s car and the child honestly thought those were the words to the song.

Real Lyric: Now bring us some figgy pudding

Misheard Lyric: Now bring us some friggin’ pudding

The other site that tracks misheard lyrics, or mondegreens, is called AmIRight.com.  Something I found hilarious on the website was a link to a story about an MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice concert together… in 2009.

-some reporting via The Body Odd


  1. Dr Bill Plumb

    I’m a long time reader and first time commenter.

    Really great & interesting articles….excellent work!

    1. Author
      Paul Martin

      Thank you, Dr. Bill. I try to find really interesting medical stories that not many would hear about otherwise. It’s my goal to have a unique and fun to read blog with stuff that intrigues as well as informs.

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