By Lindsy Lev, MusicWorx Intern
Since writing my first blog post for MusicWorx, music therapists, students, and fellow interns have asked me, “What are the go-to songs you need to know for working with Spanish speaking clients in music therapy?”
I need to begin by saying that a definitive list of Spanish language music that will get you through working with all your Hispanic clients simply does not exist. Asking me to give you a list of “Top 10 Spanish songs” is like asking me to give you a list of “Top 10 English songs.” I can’t, because the request doesn’t factor in important details such as the age of your clients, the myriad genres of music they might like, or where they are from in the Spanish speaking world. In fact, hearing the term “Spanish music” is jarring in the same way that hearing people refer to Hispanic/Latino populations as “Spanish” is to me. “Spanish music” is music that comes from Spain, like music by Isaac Albéniz or Ana Torroja. I will always take the extra second of effort to say “music in Spanish” as opposed to “Spanish music”, because they are not the same thing.
Keeping that in mind, here is my list of 15 songs that I suggest adding to your music therapy repertoire if you are working with Hispanic/Latino clients. You should be able to find most of the chords and lyrics online.
Many songs for children that fall under what I would call a “Pan-Hispanic” umbrella. Some people may use different words or phrases due to regional discrepancies, or others may sing the melody slightly differently. Even so, if you sing these songs to Hispanic families, they will most likely be recognized.
La mar estaba serena
Why it makes my list: This song is basically the equivalent of “Apples and Bananas” in Spanish. It only contains four words (which translate to “the sea was serene”), and each verse uses one vowel sound: a-e-i-o-u. It’s silly, easy to learn, and can be used to help kids with speech and language goals.
Why it makes my list: In this fun song about numbers, elephants line up to balance on an incredibly resistant spider web. The song really has no end. You could count up to a million elephants if you really wanted to. In case you only want to count up to ten, you could use it in conjunction with this cute bilingual picture book.
Muñeca vestida de azul
Why it makes my list: Sometimes the songs we sing to children don’t make much sense. I sang this one as a child and never questioned it. In a bizarre twist, this song about a doll dressed in blue actually turns into a song about addition. The first verse is about a doll in a cute outfit getting constipated and needing to drink syrup with a fork (huh?). The second verse gives you a series of math equations: 2+2=4, 4+2=6, 6+2=8, 8+8=16. Some versions of this song that add additions up to 32.
Music that appeals to teenagers (in any language) changes rapidly. For this reason, this age group was the most difficult one for me to think of repertoire for. Here are three songs that came out between 2018-2019 and are getting a lot of radio play right now. Bonus, all the videos are PG!
En peligro de extinción – La Adictiva
Why it makes my list: I discovered this song when a teenage patient at Rady Children’s Hospital requested it. The title translates to “In Danger of Extinction”, and can be interpreted as either a breakup song (as shown in the music video) or a “friendzone” song. The singer talks about how his former love interest really missed out by not reciprocating his affections, because he has the kind of romantic heart that is “in danger of extinction in this day and age”. (As a side note: can I just say I want the bathtub in which the gal in the video dunks her fully-clothed self?)
Suave y sutil – Paulina Rubio
Why it makes my list: Paulina Rubio has had a successful pop career since the 1980s, and as such you could potentially use this song for millennials and Gen X clients as well. This song, “Soft and Subtle”, is an empowering tune in which the singer declares that she is “soft and subtle like a premonition, dangerous like a hurricane”, and describes herself as a princess who has gotten bored of fairy tales and wants to rewrite her own ending.
Un año – Sebastián Yatra & Reik
Why it makes my list: This song (“One year”) is about love that is strong enough to overcome months (or years) of not seeing each other. The music video shows us snapshots of several different kinds of love that have to withstand the tests of time and distance, including a soldier getting deployed and saying goodbye to his pregnant partner, a little girl looking for her lost dog, and a man placing flowers at the gravesite of a loved one. Do yourself a favor and watch it! The video serves as a great conversation starter with patients or clients when talking about different kinds of love, or even as part of bereavement processing.
I grew up listening to these songs (for reference, I was born in 1989), and I can say with confidence that my people from my parents’ generation would enjoy them as well.
Rayando el sol – Maná
Why it makes my list: Having a conversation about Rock Latino without mentioning Maná is difficult. They have been prolifically active since the 1980s, and have collaborated with several other high profile artists (such as Santana and Shakira). Since its release in 1990, Rayando el sol has been one of Maná’s greatest hits. The title of the song loosely translates to “Reaching the Sun” (though the internet does not seem to have reached a consensus on the issue).
Se me olvidó otra vez – Juan Gabriel
Why it makes my list: Juan Gabriel is one of the most iconic Mexican singers of the 20th Century, and his popularity is transgenerational and transnational. Whenever I whip this song out (which translates to “I Forgot Again”) at the hospital, patients get excited and sing along. This song came out in 1974. However, I first heard this song in its Latin dance incarnation, when Maná covered it with a salsa vibe for their 1999 MTV Unplugged show. The fact that this song can be played in two different styles for different age groups adds to the appeal!
De música ligera – Soda Stereo
Why it makes my list: Soda Stereo is one of the all-time most beloved rock bands in Latin American history. They were active for most of the 1980s-1990s, and their almost mythical status extends well beyond their native Argentina. Gustavo Cerati, the band’s frontman, went on to achieve tremendous success as a solo act after Soda Stereo disbanded. His untimely death in 2014 was a loss felt by rock lovers all over the Spanish-speaking world. This song, which translates as “Of Light Music”, came out in 1990 and is one of their most iconic hits. De música ligera was the song the band decided to close their “last concert” in Buenos Aires with in 1997. In reality, they got back together for one last tour in 2007- but as far as fans in 1997 knew, they were witnessing the very last public appearance of a living legend.
I have used successfully used all of these songs with older patients at Scripps Hospital.
La calandria – Pedro Infante
Why it makes my list: I am personally attached to this song because my Grandpa asked me to learn it. Fortunately, most of my elderly patients enjoy it too. The song is about a deceitful lark that tricks a sparrow into letting her out of her cage with the promise of running away with him, only to fly off and act like she doesn’t know who he is. The poor sparrow is understandably upset, and cries bitterly about it. The truth is, a lot of songs in the ranchera and mariachi genres aren’t happy, but people love them all the same. Pedro Infante is a name you must familiarize yourself with if you’re working with elderly Mexican folks. He is idolized both as a singer and as an actor, and is the protagonist of a whole conspiracy theory in which he faked his death and resurfaced decades later.
Mujeres divinas – Vicente Fernández
Why it makes my list: Speaking of Mexican music idols- Vicente Fernández is definitely one of Pedro Infante’s spiritual successors. In this classic ranchera (which, in my experience, is also a passionate karaoke night hit in Latin America), Don Vicente tells a story about a time when he was dissing women with his buddies at a bar, when suddenly a stately gentleman approached him and asked him not to badmouth “Divine Women” in his presence. Considering how a lot of rancheras are about how awful women are (I’m looking at you singing La farsante, Juan Gabriel), I feel good singing this song to patients.
Gracias a la vida – Mercedes Sosa
Why it makes my list: Mercedes Sosa did not write this “Thank you to life”, but she certainly helped make it famous (along with Joan Baez- here is a nice video of them performing together). Mercedes Sosa was (and still is, even after her death) one of the most beloved voices of Latin American folklore, and was also a well-known as a political activist. This song is a gem for music therapists. The content and song structure lend themselves well to fill-in-the-blank songwriting, which I have done quite successfully with patients. All you have to do is sing “Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto. Me ha dado ____”, and have the clients fill in the blanks with what they are grateful for in their lives.
Bonus Category: Religious Music
Many Hispanic/Latino people are very attached to their faith. This is especially true in hospital or hospice settings. Here are some Christian and Catholic songs to use when giving spiritual support.
Pescador de hombres
Why it makes my list: Hands down, this is the religious song in Spanish I have used the most in my internship. Pescador de hombres is also the Catholic song I remember most from my childhood. The title translates to “Fisherman of men”, and is famous for being one of the favorites of John Paul II.
Why it makes my list: This song is catchy, and the chorus is basically one word on repeat (alabaré, meaning “I will praise”). Alabaré is easy to learn even if Spanish is not your first language, and it is definitely the first song I think of when asked to play for an Evangelical family.
Tan cerca de mí
Why it makes my list: All about how Jesus is “so close to me”, this song has a repetitive chorus and is comforting to people who might want to remind themselves how close God is to them- even if they are in the hospital or otherwise hurting.
I hope this list helps kick start your journey into music in Spanish! For your convenience, I have put all these songs on a Spotify playlist.
Until next time, ¡pura vida!
Editor’s Note: Only the first word of song titles are capitalized in Spanish.