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Commonly Misheard Lyrics (and why we mishear them)

Commonly Misheard Lyrics (and why we mishear them)
August 24, 2021 DrPerry

Misheard Lyrics BookSometime during my teenage years, one of my family members gave me a book called “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy And Other Misheard Lyrics”.  I wasn’t because it was related to hearing.  I didn’t know what an audiologist was back then.  Whoever gave it to me probably thought it would be a good gift, since it had Jimi Hendrix on the cover, I listened to (and played) a lot of classic rock back then, and it was almost certainly in the bargain bin.

We all mishear things from time to time.  Mishearing song lyrics is especially common, since they are often poorly articulated, accompanied by competing music, and frequently don’t make a lot of sense anyway.  We hear a song, think we heard the lyrics a certain way, then we sing the wrong lyrics for the rest of our life – until the day someone points out how wrong we are.

When someone develops hearing loss, mishearing lyrics can happen a lot more often.  Sometimes, painfully mishearing lyrics can be what finally convinces you it’s time to do something about your hearing loss.  

Several years ago, an elderly woman came to me, accompanied by her two adult daughters.  At the beginning of the hearing test, I asked what motivated her to come see me at that time, and everyone started laughing.  They then told me the story.  The three of them were driving down the road with the radio on.  An Elton John song came on: “Benny and the Jets”.  Part way through the song, the woman said while shaking her head, “I can’t believe they play stuff like this on the radio.  It’s just disgusting!”  The daughters didn’t know what she was talking about.  “What do you mean?” they asked.  “Just listen to it” she replied.  “Benny’s got the sh*ts?”

They could barely keep it together as they told the story of what happened.  I can’t imagine how hard they laughed as it actually happened!  Anyway… that’s what finally convinced her to come see me.  We eventually fit her with hearing devices, and she mishears far fewer things these days.

Here are a few commonly misheard lyrics, along with a little info about why we probably mishear them – from an audiologist’s perspective:

1. Dire Straits – Money For Nothing

Commonly misheard: “Money for nothin’ and your chips for free”
Actual lyrics: “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”

The song is about the joys of being an MTV rock star, as opposed to an appliance delivery person.  The guys singing on TV aren’t working.  It looks like they get paid for nothing and they magnetically attract women – for free.  It’s not mentioned, but I suppose they could also get special treatment at casinos.  The difference between these lyrics is a single consonant sound.  The /k/ sound is actually quite similar to a /p/ sound.  They voiceless plosives, with the only difference being what part of your mouth stops the airflow.

2. Queen – We Will Rock You

Commonly misheard: “Kicking your cat all over the place”
Actual lyrics: “Kicking your can all over the place”

Kicking someone’s cat is pretty ruthless, but it’s not really out of place in a song about dominating someone.  The words “cat” and “can” share a /k/ sound, but their vowels and ending consonants are clearly different – unless you singing w/ a british accent.  The /t/ and /n/ are both formed in the same part of the mouth, which makes them the acoustically similar.

3. Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer

Commonly misheard: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not”
Actual lyrics: “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not”

Considering the undertones of a lot of 1980s rock songs, singing about getting naked doesn’t seem out of place.  We’ve got three acoustic differences here, and they’re all pretty insignificant : “we” vs “we’re”, /n/ vs /m/, and /ed/ vs /it/.  I’ll spare you the details on this one, but if you consider the placement of each of these sounds in the mouth, it’s pretty obvious how they could get mixed up.

4. Europe – The Final Countdown

Commonly misheard: “We’re living on peanuts
Actual lyrics: “We’re heading for Venus

This one is interesting.  The lyric is apparently misheard several different ways, sometimes involving male anatomy.  What’s interesting is that all of the misheard versions are missing the word “Venus”.  In other words, if you hear “Venus”, it’s obvious what the lyric is.  But if you hear another word in that place, you’ll fill in the “heading for” part with anything that makes sense to you.  There are some who hear “heading for peanuts”, but since that doesn’t make a lot of sense, others end up with the common phrase “living on peanuts”, even though “heading for” and “living on” aren’t very acoustically similar.  This is an example of our brain is constantly filling in gaps without us realizing it.  Between sight, sound, feeling, etc., there is way too much sensory information for us to actually process everything we sense.  Instead, our brain processes little bits and then fills in the holes with what makes sense.  Usually, it’s remarkably good at that. Sometimes, it fails us.

5. Macy Gray – I Try

Misheard by at least me: “I blow bubbles when you are not there”
Actual lyrics: “My world crumbles when you are not near”

I’m not sure if this is “commonly misheard” or if it’s just me.  I very clearly hear Macy Gray singing about blowing bubbles.  I learned those weren’t the lyrics years ago, but even after listening to it again today, I had to look up the lyrics to figure out what she actually said.   Macy Gray has a unique voice.  To me, her vowel sounds are beautiful, but it sounds like someone asked her to sing right after she took a mouthful of mashed potatoes.  These two phrases are only loosely similar, so in this case, a psychologist might be more helpful than an audiologist.

Of course, we can joke about mishearing lyrics.  But for someone with hearing loss, mishearing things isn’t usually very funny.  It can be frustrating for both the listener and the speaker.  When people get frustrated with communicating, they have a tendency to not try as often.  Well-meaning family members who get tired of repeating themselves sometimes end the conversation with “forget it” or “nevermind, it’s not important”.  This can cause the person with the hearing loss to withdraw socially, which can lead to a whole host of other issues.

If you feel like maybe you’re not hearing quite like you used to, it’s probably a good idea to get your hearing tested – even if you’re not ready to do anything about it yet.

– Dr. Perry