Beautiful brain fuel: foreign language music


Foreign language music often has something magical about it – wether you understand the language a lot, a little, or not at all, there is always something slightly special about it. Maybe it comes from the way we’re sharing art and learning between cultures, and getting to enjoy something different, something with the connotation that people a world away have created this and that it has made its way to you. Maybe it is that, because the filtration of foreign arts and entertainment to our country seems so rare, we’re getting only the best exports. Whatever the cause, and even if someone can’t name too many tracks in another language off the top of their head, when presented with one their beauty can be difficult to ignore. I mean, I challenge you to deny that ‘Le festin’ – the song by Camille, which featured in Disney’s Ratatouille – is anything but exceedingly charming.

These songs, however, might be more than just nice to listen to. As students, they might hold the secret to that elusive productivity.

Studies have shown that listening to music helps with work on repetitive and relatively mindless tasks – filling out a spreadsheet, sorting documents, that sort of thing. But when it comes to needing more brainpower, the perfect playlist can be a bit more tricky. Different groups of researchers have shown that a certain level of background noise is the optimum for productive working conditions, but that the noise shouldn’t involve any intelligible speech. That’s why people suggest working in coffeeshops, or with that ambient noise generators that fake the noise of rain or wood burning fires or, well, coffeeshops. The low hum of the unpredictable, ‘white noise’-ness is meant to help concentration, boost brain function and lead to higher worker satisfaction.

If you’re chasing some cheer when working, there is evidence that listening to your favourite music puts you in a better mood and so a better mindset to work. Makes sense – but my opinion is that when we listen to songs we’re familiar with we’re too tuned into them, and we enjoy them enough that we’re distracted. This is definitely the crime for people who spend as much time picking the music to listen to as they work than they do working! So the suggestion is that we take the words, the ‘intelligible’ bit that your subconscious is trying to decipher instead of your textbook. Classical music works well for this, but so does, yes, foreign language music.

As long as you’re not too fluent in its language, music from around world can help improve your studying. It can open your mind to new things in more ways than one, both hearing something new and maybe learning it, too. Some personal suggestions for foreign language albums you could just pull up, press play on the first track and leave running while you work include the The Life Aquatic Sessions by Seu Jorge, a Brazilian artist who, for the film of the same name, covered David Bowie songs with these elegant acoustic covers, and the self titled debut album from Claire Denamur, who sounds sort of like a French answer to Christina Perri, if she wrote any songs that weren’t incredibly depressing.

Foreign language music, perhaps because we don’t always understand it, can sound effortlessly beautiful. It is, to me, naturally joyous – something we maybe all need a little more of, when stuck in the library.


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Features Editor 2015/16. PhD student. Sorry I give everything five stars, I just have a lot of love in my heart.

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