What can you do at a German Diskothek (discotheque)?
You can boogie down, of course! But even better, you can improve your German!
German-language songs are a boon to modern-day German learners, as using music to learn is a great way to have fun while studying.
This post will offer a window into the wide world of German disco and funk music, sharing some tracks that will get you grooving as you learn.
- Musik (Music) and Songtexte (Lyrics) in Sweet Harmony: The Benefits of Music in Language Study
- Pump Up the Volume on Your Studies with SRS and Dance
- Disco, German-style: A Brief History
- Deutsch at the Diskothek: 10 Super Cool German Songs
Musik (Music) and Songtexte (Lyrics) in Sweet Harmony: The Benefits of Music in Language Study
Music is a wonderful tool for studying language. Patterns are found all throughout music, either in the chords and rhythms of a backing track or in the rhyme scheme of lyrics. Because of these patterns, lyrics are “sticky,” with hooks that make them easy to remember. There’s even a term in German for an annoyingly catchy song: ein Ohrwurm (an earworm).
Sometimes music can be used as a mnemonic device for remembering grammar rules. For example, in German, some prepositions require that the object of the preposition be in the dative case, such as in the sentence, “Du bekommst einen Brief von mir” (You [will] receive a letter from me). Notice how von (from) requires the dative form of ich (I/me), which is mir. To memorize which prepositions require dative case, you can learn a short tune set to “Blue Danube.”
Beyond lyrical content, foreign-language music is great for beginners as a way of practicing accents. Benny Lewis, a language blogger who advocates speaking in your target language from the very beginning, espouses music as a way of picking up the nuances of pronunciation. Singing in German loosens up your tongue and habituates you to common qualities of spoken German, like rolled Rs and umlauts. You might even be able to pick up the accents from German dialects if the singer isn’t just singing in Hochdeutsch (standard German).
Disco—and its cousin, funk—is like pop music in that it’s designed to be catchy. Disco rhythms are generally easy to follow, often using what’s known as “four on the floor,” like in EDM or dance music. How does this help? Well, while a German rap song might feature complex rhythms and even more complicated wordplay in the lyrics, disco and funk music often have simple lyrical content, with repetitive phrasing. One of the rules of learning through lyrics is to make sure you’re learning at your level.
Pump Up the Volume on Your Studies with SRS and Dance
Although lyrics have their own built-in mnemonics by both being paired with a catchy backbeat as well as utilizing rhymes and wordplay, you can further cement them in your memory by adding them to flashcards. While paper flashcards can help, using systems such as SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) may make the process faster.
Many language learning programs offer SRS-based flashcards. One example is FluentU, which houses an authentic German video library that includes music clips and songs. You learn vocabulary from them via interactive subtitles, then review them with multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes that track your progress.
Another way to take advantage of music and language learning is to involve dancing, as well. There have been some interesting studies done on using movement while learning, and since lyrics can have directions and commands, they’re a natural fit. What’s easier: memorizing “Hände hoch!” (“Hands up!”) out of context, or remembering it while raising your hands during a dancing session?
If you’re in Germany or another German-speaking country, you may have the opportunity to participate in “Discofox” lessons—or you can also learn it online! This partner-based dance is very popular in Germany, and as mentioned earlier, the music is often up-tempo and very similar to disco. Even without embedded commands, pairing the music with the steps can trigger strong memories with the lyrics.
Disco, German-style: A Brief History
Disco music came from cities, branching out of underground dance scenes and incorporating the rhythms and sounds of musical styles such as funk and blues. As disco grew in popularity, it spread beyond these initial dance clubs, or discotheques, and into popular culture. From there, disco and funk expanded outside the United States to create “Eurodisco,” or European disco music. The quintessential “poppy” sound of commercial disco came about mostly in the ‘70s and onward.
Disco music was especially popular in Italy, resulting in the subgenre of “Italo disco.” But while Italians were gobbling up Italo disco, Germans were also catching boogie fever. Many famous disco artists from Germany, Switzerland and Austria never recorded tracks in German. In fact, countless Eurodisco acts released English hit after English hit, allowing their music to spread to the U.S.
For example, Boney M’s song about Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine, would have enough staying power to make its way into the “Just Dance” series of video games, but the German band never released a German-language song.
Even so, the popularity of disco-influenced music was undeniable. The movie “Saturday Night Fever,” based around the disco lifestyle, even had a hand in inspiring one of Germany’s most popular partner dances: Discofox, a Hustle-like dance originating in the U.S. Discofox is still popular today, with many of the dance tracks being either up-tempo dance music or Schlager songs set to a beat.
Deutsch at the Diskothek: 10 Super Cool German Songs
Disco music may have lost much of its popularity in the present day, having given way to pop and EDM, but these tracks still embody the funky, old-school disco spirit—in German!
1. Dschinghis Khan – “Moskau”
Dschinghis Khan is the poster child for German disco. Comprised of six singers and dancers—including a South African dancer dressed as a cartoonish Genghis Khan—Dschinghis Khan released a number of German-language disco tracks centering on hordes and Huns. The band was created in Munich to compete in Eurovision 1979.
This track, “Moskau” (the German spelling of Moscow), in particular has a bright feel. It’s unabashedly fun, and a video of its performance has become Internet famous for featuring dancers in bright, satiny outfits performing outrageous Hopak-style dancing. Lyrics are readily available, which makes the song easy to learn.
There are even a few interesting verb conjugations, such as the orders in the informal version of the Imperativ (imperative/command) case, telling the listener to “wirf die Gläser an die Wand” or “throw the glasses at the wall.” Could be a useful phrase at your next party—but maybe not at a Kneipe (pub).
2. Topsy Küppers – “Sagen Sie, Frau Zimmermann”
While Topsy Küppers sang several songs, this Austrian artist is known for her work in several fields. Not just a singer, she’s an accomplished author and actress, as well.
“Sagen Sie, Frau Zimmermann” (Tell Me, Mrs. Zimmerman) features a bold, brassy sound, with crooning ladies pulling out all the stops on background vocals. The storytelling in the lyrics takes center stage. Repetition of commands such as “sagen Sie,” or “tell me,” is helpful for remembering the polite imperative, and there are many useful verbs such as “putzen” (to clean), “backen” (to bake) and “lieben” (to love) sprinkled throughout each stanza. But beyond that, this tale of a scorned woman is filled with dark humor—an excellent incentive to translating the lyrics.
3. Centrum – “Disco King”
There’s not much information online about the group “Centrum,” supposedly founded in 1976 and released under the AMIGA label, nor is there much information on this track, “Disco King.” That said, the title of the song says it all: it’s about the king of disco. Simplistic lyrics combine with a funky backing track to make for a short, enjoyable song.
The lyrics aren’t available online, so this is a good opportunity to test your listening comprehension. The slow pace makes this song especially good for learners who are just starting to work on their listening skills. There is some fun vocabulary, such as “engen Hosen” (tight pants), as well as idiomatic turns of phrase, such as the separable verb in “und dann geht er los” (and then he sets off).
4. Shirley Thompson – “Goldene Insel”
Shirley Thompson is credited as being part of a German production of the musical “Hair” in 1968, possibly alongside the famous singer Donna Summer. Released a year after that production, this song, “Goldene Insel” (Golden Island), is featured on the album “Funky Fräuleins,” a compilation of funky German songs.
Like other tracks on this list, “Goldene Insel” is catchy and poppy. The lyrics are hard to understand (mentioned in the album’s liner notes), but it’s invaluable to hear German spoken and sung in ways that are different from the standard accent. Conversing in a new language involves more than just classroom pronunciation, after all.
5. Manfred Krug – “Wenn der Urlaub kommt”
“Wenn der Urlaub kommt” (When the Vacation Comes) by Manfred Krug is like an afternoon spent at the city park: kind of loud, kind of exciting, with a noisy detour partway through.
Bits and pieces of this song have been resampled into other tracks. On the WhoSampled site, you can listen to reinterpretations of the hook and the drums. Manfred Krug himself was a jazz musician in addition to his prolific acting career.
In this song, lyrics are sung in staccato, matching the meandering rhythm of the backing track. Some phrases feature useful grammar. For example, from this line—“dann kriegst du Ärger”—you can learn more about the verb “kriegen,” which is a slightly less formal way of saying “bekommen” (to get or receive), as well as about this idiom meaning “to become angry.” This song also helps with cementing your understanding of the word “wenn,” as it’s featured heavily throughout the song.
6. Holger Biege – “Cola-Wodka”
As this song crescendos amidst a funky haze of horns, pianos and high-energy drums, Holger Biege, a German singer, implicates vodka and Coke for his mistakes. Although “Cola-Wodka” (Vodka and Cola) was released in the late ‘70s, Holger Biege continues to sing to this day, belting out pop-rock songs.
The lyrics include some useful bits of vocabulary that help shift the blame or talk about bad things happening: “Leider,” meaning “unfortunately,” and “Cola-Wodka war Schuld daran” (vodka and cola was to blame). The song’s name, too, offers some help in remembering how the letter W is pronounced in German—like V as in “vodka” (Wodka). The lyrics are available to view here.
7. Wir – “Trinklied”
The band Wir released some rocking songs. They sit firmly in the camp of funk-rock, with distorted guitars and unusual melodies. They started up in the disco age and played music through the late ‘80s.
This song, “Trinklied” (Drinking Song), is a particularly funky track. The vocals are dreamy at first, building up into harmonized shouts in the chorus (“Trink, trink!” — “Drink, drink!”). The relatively slow tempo makes for easy listening, and the lyrics are available online.
8. Chicorée – “Was du von mir verlangst”
Chicorée was a rock band from the DDR (the former East Germany) that was reasonably well known during the ‘80s and this song (whose title means “What you’re asking of me”) is from 1987. Even now, the name of the band will pop up on band lists or in questions about grammar—“Is it ‘der Chicorée’ or ‘die Chicorée’?”—on Stack Exchange. The founder, Dirk Zöllner, went on to continue his music career.
One of the challenges of learning a new language is figuring out the most natural way to say something. Instead of memorizing these set phrases, it can be nice to find a catchy hook in a song that repeats a phrase—a built-in memory device. This song features two idiomatic expressions that repeat endlessly: “von mir verlangen” (to request of me) and “etwas macht mir Angst” (I’m afraid of something).
9. Marianne Rosenberg – “Er gehört zu mir”
Marianne Rosenberg was, and still is, a Schlager singer at heart. Although the German word “Schlager” literally means “hit,” Schlager songs are not really “pop.” Instead, Schlager songs tend to have a certain twangy sound and warm gentleness to the lyrics. They’re also great for learning German.
“Er gehört zu mir” (He Belongs to Me) is not a Schlager song. In fact, it sounds quintessentially disco, with the upbeat 4-4 rhythm found in most disco hits of the ‘70s. Likewise, the instrumentation isn’t filled with guitars or accordions; it’s filled with synths and strings. Given Marianne Rosenberg’s clear enunciation, this could be an excellent song for practicing your accent, but even beyond that, the lyrics are filled with immediately useful phrases.
10. Kreis – “Ich will dich”
With stirrings of strings and flutes in the background, breathy vocals sing out, “Ich will dich, ich will dich, ich will dich… Ah, sag… was willst du? Ich will dich, ich will dich, nur dich immerzu!” “(I want you, I want you, I want you… Tell me…what do you want? I want you, I want you, only you, forever!”).
The tempo of the song is great for beginners, and the repetitive lyrics are catchy and memorable. If anything, you’ll learn how to say, “I want you” over and over—a useful phrase for when you’re meeting up with a special German friend.
Kreis’s discography features numerous songs with disco and funk stylings. If you enjoy this track, you’re sure to enjoy others in their rock oeuvre.
Regardless of how you choose to get down, involving music in your language efforts can make a huge difference. By having fun as you study, you’ll make greater progress towards fluency. Hopefully these songs can help make your German studies even more funkadelic.