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Learn Spanish by Listening to Music

You’ll never learn Spanish from a book. You’ll never learn it in a classroom — especially if you don’t get a chance to speak. You need more.

But you also won’t learn Spanish just by living in Spain and drinking wine with locals. Yes, these things are important, but they won’t give you a complete understanding of the language.

You need to listen. And what’s better than listening to music in Spanish, in all its regional and stylistic variety. You don’t even need to buy anything! Youtube has everything you need.

Mere listening is not enough, however. You need a method.

First, find a song you like, in a genre you like, with clearly-sung words that aren’t too fast. Do you love rap and hip-hop? Me too, but it’s way too fast and full of slang to study Spanish with, at least at first. (More on that in the tips below.)

The method:

  1. Listen to the song while reading the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if they mean nothing to you. Follow the words closely so it’s not just gibberish. Don’t pause when you don’t understand something. At this point you aren’t learning Spanish, simply developing your ability to listen. You’re getting a feel for the pronunciation of words and the cadence of the language, which is quite different between Spanish and English*.
  2. Repeat step 1 until you can follow the lyrics from beginning to end without getting lost.
  3. Listen again, but this time underline words you don’t know. At this stage, it’s handy to have a printout. To find lyrics, type “group name song name letras” into Google. For example: “Molotov Frijolero letras.” Letras means lyrics.
  4. Look up the words in an online translator and write them on your sheet. I recommend Word Reference or Spanish Dict.
  5. Listen again and try to make sense of the song. What’s it about? A love song? A protest song? A joke? If you get stuck, focus on the chorus. Listen until you know the chorus by heart.

Tips:

  1. Just like in English, Spanish words can have more than one meaning. (Quick examples: possible meanings of the words break, run, or sick in English.) Consider new vocabulary in the context of its verse, and the lyrics as a whole. Choose the most reasonable translation from the many possibilities. If there’s more than one likely option, write down both. With repetition, it should eventually make sense, or ask someone for help.
  2. Remember that songs are full of slang. (Example: so many songs in English, in all genres, use ain’t, which isn’t really a word, as your elementary school English teacher surely told you.) If no translation makes sense, the word is probably slang. Slang is regional, so if you want to learn Mexican Spanish, listen to Mexican music. If you’re going to Chile, find Chilean bands.
  3. Learn to recognize metaphor**, an essential part of countless songs. For example, in “Jefe de Jefes” (linked below), he sings “muchos pollos…quieren pelear con el gallo” — many chickens want to fight with the rooster. What does that mean? In “Rata de Dos Patas” — two-legged rat — the whole song is a metaphor.
  4. If you’re a total beginner and find yourself looking up more than half of the words and still understanding nothing, you need songs that are relentlessly repetitive (Me Gustas Tu, Manu Chao), ridiculously well-known (La Bamba), ridiculously simple (Feliz Navidad), catchy as hell (Lamento Boliviano, Enanitos Verdes), or all of these things (Oye Como Va).
  5. Also for beginners — don’t worry so much about what the song means. Instead, listen for words you recognize. Look up a few. For example, I estimate that 95% of Spanish songs have at least one corazón. Later, listen without the lyrics and let those words pop out at you. I promise you’ll notice them in conversation next.

Don’t know where to start? Here are four songs from Mexico I think you’ll enjoy. Take your time — repeat the steps of my method over and over.

* English is a stress-timed language, which means that entire Shakespeare plays can fit into the framework of iambic pentameter. Spanish is a syllable-timed language, with means that the syllables usually must be fully pronounced, and can’t be easily compressed like in English.

** Metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory — whatever you call it, it’s when you use two (seemingly) unrelated things to make a comparison. “Jefe de Jefes” has nothing to do with roosters and chickens.

For a music lesson about learning Mexican slang through songs, click here.

Free trial for audiobooks: Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Good luck! Tell me some more songs in the comments.

How to Get Into Music in Spanish

street jam copy

Jamming on the street in San Cristobal de las Casas

Before the ease of downloading, when I traveled in places like Brazil, Vietnam and Mexico, I went to street markets, where pirated CDs with photocopied liner notes in plastic sleeves hung from big white racks.

Whenever I heard music I liked, I’d ask the person who it was, what kind of music it was, and which other groups I should listen to. I walked away with stacks of bootleg CDs.

El Chopo, Mexico City's rock market

El Chopo, Mexico City’s rock market

But what’s even better is to have a musician or a music fan write me a list of their favorite bands. Then after a long trip I sit down with my lists and listen to the suggestions on YouTube.

A few posts on this blog are lists of my musical discoveries from Latin America. Many fine artists are practically unknown north of the Mexican/U.S. border, the great cultural divide in North America.

So this is my list to you, from one friend and curious traveler to another:

The Bus, Dance Floor and Block Party – My introduction to some major styles in Latin American music.

Kickass Mexican Music – My five favorite Mexican groups/artists from my first year living in Mexico. Now, more than two years after I wrote this article, I’ve seen all but one of these groups live. Can you guess which?

http://media.gunaxin.com/kickass-mexican-music/106622

Think You Don’t Like Rock in Spanish – Some great songs, chosen to give a newbie a nice intro to the diversity of Spanish rock:

https://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/think-you-dont-like-rock-in-spanish-listen-to-these/

Rap and Hip Hop in Spanish:

https://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/rap-and-hip-hop-in-spanish/

Latin Music for Jam Fans – Another primer for quality Rock en Español (rock in Spanish):

http://www.jambands.com/features/2010/11/19/latin-music-for-jam-fans/

Los Tigres del Norte – “Somos Mas Americanos” (We are more American) is a protest song every American should hear. Includes my translation to English:

https://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/spanish-protest-songs-los-tigres-del-norte/

Vive Latino 2012 – the biggest rock festival in Mexico:

https://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/vive-latino-2012/

Vive Latino 2013 – a great Sunday lineup of some of my favorite Latin bands:

https://nohaybronca.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/vive-latino-2013/

My experience at Cumbre Tajin 2014, another great music festival in Mexico:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2014/03/volunteering-at-cumbre-tajin-totonaca-pottery-by-day-tool-and-banda-el-recodo-by-night/

For thoughts on playing, collecting and passing music between travelers – music from around the world – please read Discovering Music on the Road.

Thanks, and please comment with more suggestions. Send me your list from your part of the world. And click on these CDs:

(This post contains paid Amazon Associate links.)

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