Singing “Sorry”: Apologising Through Music

Ariana Philips, Faculty of Music


Musical apologies are big hits: Justin Bieber’s song “Sorry” currently has more than 1.7 million views on YouTube, making the Canadian singer’s music video the fifth most-watched video on the service. Over a tropical house/Puerto Rican beat the singer repeats a series of pleas to an absent lover, proclaiming his need for “one more shot at forgiveness” and asking “is it too late now to say sorry?” Bieber’s smash hit is not unique in its sentiment: musical apologies are popular music staples, from Elton John and Nirvana to Chicago and John Lennon—but what role does music have in expressing remorse? This summer a group of year 12 students from state-supported institutions came together to participate in a week-long introduction to studying music at Cambridge. The week was part of a summer school run by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity dedicated to expanding access to education. Amongst lectures on musicology, performance masterclasses, and student presentations, the students gathered for a workshop discussing what it means to apologise through music, asking questions such as: Is it possible to apologise through music? What makes something an apology song? How do listeners evaluate an apology?

Sutton Trust Music Students 2015

The workshop grew out of my research into how contemporary music performance enacts narratives of guilt, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In my PhD dissertation, I examine this through distinct genres of contemporary music ranging from indie singer-songwriters through choral music to cantatas. I argue that music which engages with these fundamental components of human experience influences how people perceive of themselves in relationship to others. This workshop focused on one strand of this research, moving outward from the simple question of why we sing ‘sorry’ to explore the meaning of musical apologies more generally. In addition to providing an opportunity for the participants to consider the narratives that shape our experience of musical apologies, this workshop offered me the chance to gather valuable evidence of audience beliefs about how it looks and sounds to apologise through music—evidence that will continue to enrich my research.

The workshop began with a brief survey to evaluate students’ current thoughts about the nature of musical apologies. They were asked to think of a few examples of sorry songs and make some initial notes as to what made these good examples. In addition to Bieber, popular choices included Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, “Apologize” by One Republic, and “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars. There was widespread agreement that setting apologies to music allows for a deeper, more fluid expression of emotions than do spoken words. However, one student noted that musical apologies made the singer seem desperate rather than sincere. The discussion following the survey went through some of the major issues involved in thinking about musical apologies, from the underlying assumptions about sincerity and emotive communication that structure our interpretations to the instrumental and vocal sounds we associate with apologising. In addition, the free-flowing debate took in questions of genre, performance practice, the presence of sung text, and the tension between individual communication and commercialisation in pop music.

Armed with this information, we tested our expectations on an unfamiliar piece: “Sorry Sorry” by the Korean pop group Super Junior. Super Junior’s work is rhythmically infectious dance-pop and the accompanying music video features energetic dance sequences interspersed with soulful close-ups of the multiple solo singers. The discussion of this piece sought first to reveal and then to question assumptions about apology songs in terms of genre, instrumentation, singing timbre, and the music video’s visual style. Multiple students compared the K-pop aesthetic unfavourably with other genres—particularly that of the singer-songwriter accompanied by solo instrument—but they acknowledged that ingrained cultural preferences influence their perception of what qualifies as sincere communication.

Participants were able to put these arguments into practice during the final segment of the workshop as the students learned a choral arrangement of Kerry Fletcher’s “Sorry Song”. “Sorry Song” was written in 1997 as a way of encouraging Australians to acknowledge and apologise for the historic oppression of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and in February 2008 the Australian government issued an official apology (see Kevin Rudd’s speech and an online news article for more information). “Sorry Song” was performed as part of the initial celebrations surrounding the apology and it is now a regular part of reconciliation celebrations in Australia.

In the workshop, the students embraced the challenge of learning the three-part song from scratch and afterwards were able to give feedback on their experience of performing. Even though the song’s political and cultural context was unfamiliar to the students prior to the workshop, they expressed surprise at the degree to which they experienced the performance as a genuine apology in which they too could participate. Their responses suggest that the fusion of the song’s narrative of apologising for past abuses with the performance’s enactment of unity is an effective combination.

In addition to introducing the students to the subject of apologising through music, the workshop encouraged them to think critically about the musical narratives we construct. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and by the range of issues to which they were sensitive in their interpretations of music. The survey taken at the end of the workshop revealed not only that they found the subject both interesting and relevant, but also that thinking through the nature of apologising through music led them to a deeper understanding of musical hermeneutics that they will take with them into other areas of study. This workshop demonstrates that audiences make sophisticated judgements about multiple layers of emotive communication in music. It also suggests that even though what individuals evaluate as a sincere apology varies, singing sorry through music seems nearly as ubiquitous as the need to apologise itself.

I’d like to thank the Cambridge Commonwealth, European, and International Trust for their support of my research.


Ariana Philips is a PhD Student in the Faculty of Music under the supervision of Professor Nicholas Cook. Prior to coming to Cambridge, Ariana studied at Baylor University (Texas, USA) receiving a BM (Hons) in Piano Pedagogy and Performance and a double MM in Piano Performance, Music History and Literature.  She studied piano with Professor Jane Abbott-Kirk and musicology with Professors Jean Boyd, Robin Wallace, and Laurel Zeiss. Since her graduation in 2012 she has been a contributing editor for several books, including Take Note: An Introduction to Music through Active Listening (Oxford University Press, 2014), the 9th edition of A History of Western Music, and the 5th edition of A Concise History of Western Music (both for W.W. Norton & Co., 2014).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s