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Music to our ears: The top 10 melodic German phrases

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Music to our ears: The top 10 melodic German phrases
Photo: Depositphotos/Wavebreakmedia
16:04 CET+01:00
Many German idioms have a musical association. We take a look at ten of our favourites.

Germany is a country which is well known for producing great musical maestros, being the birthplace of Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Udo Lindenberg. 

It is, therefore, unsurprising that many musical references have found their way into the German language. 

READ ALSO: How hearing Bach at Easter gave me a deeper appreciation for learning German

1. Musik in meinen Ohren

Let’s start with one that’s very familiar to English speakers. This means, literally: “Music in my ears" or, as we would say, “music to my ears”. The meaning is the same as the English idiom – that something is very pleasing to hear or to find out about. 

2. Der Ton macht die Musik. 

“The tone makes the music” or, in other words, it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. This is a phrase which was adopted by the German language from the French saying “C'est le ton qui fait la musique”.

Stuck on repeat. Source: Deposit Photos/Observer

3. wie eine kaputte Platte klingen 

Another familiar one, meaning “to sound like a broken record”. When someone says the same thing over and over again, they start to sound like a scratched up vinyl which is stuck on repeat.

4. Ich könnte dich ein Lied davon singen!

If someone tells you in German “I could sing you a song about it!”, it means they have a lot to say on the subject.

The origin of this phrase traces back to meaning of the word “Lied” (song) itself. In the 16th century, Lied was the word for a speech given in public. The speech could be accompanied by music or include rhymes, but the main point was that one would talk a lot about a subject, about which they had a lot of knowledge. Hence the origin of the phrase. 

5. eine Saite im jemandem berühren

This one literally translates as “to touch a string in someone”. Its phrasal equivalent in English would be “to strike a chord”. 

6. Pfeifen im Walde

If you ever find yourself alone in the woods, maybe whistling a little tune will bolster your courage? This phrase “to whistle in the forest” is used to describe outward behaviour which attempts to cover up underlying fear or insecurity.

Noone likes to play second fiddle. Pictured here: Violinists in the Heckentheater, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA 

7. die zweite Geige spielen

This phrase derives from the way in which an orchestra is organized – the first violin (or fiddle) sits nearest the conductor and is the leader of the violin section. Second violin is, as you would imagine, second in command. Thus, “die zweite Geige spielen” means to have a subordinate or less important role than somebody else.

8. auf die Pauke hauen

This rowdy phrase means “to bang the timpani” and is used as an expression when one wants to do something very openly, for example to celebrate. 

So, if you want to declare to your friends desire to party like crazy tonight, tell them: “Lass uns heute auf die Pauke hauen!”.

9. immer die alte Leier 

In English we might say “the same old story”, but in German you could say “always the same old Lyre”.

This is probably the oldest phrase in this list, as the Lyre was a string instrument invented in the 9th century, which very early on gained a reputation for its irritating  musical inflexibility. Thus it became part of this well-known phrase, to express annoyance at the constant repetition of something annoying or unpleasant.

10. aus dem letzten Loch pfeifen

This idiom from the 17th century literally translates as: “to pipe from the last hole” and means to be right at the end of your strength, almost completely exhausted. 

The phrase refers to the last hole in a wind instrument, such as a flute, which makes the highest tone the instrument is capable of producing. After blowing the last hole, the musical possibilities of the instrument are exhausted – and no further tone can be reached. 

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