Hea-a-a-a-art Full of… Sand

When you hear a song for the very first time, your brain has to make sense of the stream of pure sound pouring in through your ears. To chop sound into words. Words that make sense.

You search for a pattern. Any pattern, especially a rhyming pattern. Once the pattern is set, your brain flips through all the words you know that fit, both the pattern and the sounds it’s receiving. It spits out the best fit. Like a vending machine. And like a vending machine, sometimes your brain gives you tea when you needed coffee.

My brain guessed the rhyming pattern of Heart full of Soul wrong. It convinced me that the chorus was I’ve Got a Heart Full of Sand:

Heart Full of Soul sets up a clear pattern of exact rhymes: lonely/only, despair/where, me/plea and bear/there.  The listener’s brain perceives the pattern and expects sad to have an exact rhyming partner too. But it doesn’t. And that’s part of the magic of the song – the unexpected partnering of sad and soul. The songwriter, Graham Gouldman, set up a clear rhyming pattern so that he could break it.

Unexpected words attract attention. But a word is only unexpected when the audience has been led to expect something else. Until a pattern is set in a song, all words are equally unexpected.

Soul is a far more interesting rhyme than sand. Soul is a pleasing word – rounded, with soft edges and a roomy diphthong at its heart. Keith Relf, the singer, puts his own heart and soul into singing it. Sand is a damp, heavy word – when you imagine it filling a heart, rather than blowing about in the desert like this. Soul is expansive, floating and romantic.

Soul is the Most Important Word in the song – the one that sums up its meaning. So it deserves extra attention.

My brain missed all that. Once it had decided that the word was sand, it ignored all the contradictory information coming in through my ears. My ears were blocked to the true sounds until I read the title of the song on YouTube. The written word convinced my brain to revise its ideas. And now I hear soul and I can’t quite believe I ever heard sand. But I did. Sand was what my brain told me to hear. So I heard it.

Why sand? Because my brain, trying its best to keep up with the speed of the song, jumped on the sound of the letter s at the beginning of the word. Like a contestant in a quiz show, it started guessing, before it had all the information it needed. It quickly flipped through its cache of possible English words beginning with s. It found no exact rhymes for sad.

I can’t think of any useful words of one syllable that begin with s and rhyme with sad. Only Scrabble words like this one about fish. Not useful in a song about human love. So my brain settled on sand.

A Heart Full of Sand is a perfectly possible phrase. Laura Marling uses the expression in her song The Captain and the Hourglass here, about a minute in. Keith Relf certainly looks bereft enough to have a heart full of sand.

I’m not alone in mistaking song lyrics. It happens so often that the English word mondegreen was coined to describe it. YouTube is full of videos of misheard song lyrics, like this one.

The moral of the story? Don’t trust your ears – we’ve talked here and here about how they can lead you astray. Don’t trust your brain. It’s full of tricks like this . Trust a reliable set of written lyrics. Not a free  internet version. Internet lyrics are often just cut-and-paste copies of what random people think they’ve heard. Not what the songwriter wrote or what the singer sang. Drink your words from the source, not from the polluted water downstream.

Imagine if I had auditioned for The Voice with Heart Full of Sand. It would have gone viral on YouTube. But not in a good way.

P.S.  Did you notice the extravagantly miming guitar player in the white floppy shirt? Did you recognise him? Mr Jimmy Page, aged 24, looking like an excited puppy in purple velvet trousers.

And finally, the Movember moustache question – does Keith Relf look better with or without? What do you think?

© Sing Better English, 2014


5 thoughts on “Hea-a-a-a-art Full of… Sand”

  1. Ha! The mis-heard or mis-understood song lyrics have a word in German too…. ‘Agathe Bauer’ because it sounds like a woman’s name, but the actual lyrics are ‘I got the power’ haha…. when I first heard of all these songs I was laughing so hard!


  2. And the term ‘mondegreen’ … such fascinating etymology. For people who look similar they’re called by the German term, I believe: Doppelgänger. How interesting that the term for words is such a young one! Maybe our pronounciation was radically different only a few hundred years ago (Middle English, for example)…. how interesting!


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