3 surprising facts about the relationship between language and music

It’s often said that music is the “universal language of mankind”. Indeed, like language, music has great expressive power, and manages to convey a vast array of sentiments and emotions, even without the use of words. But just how connected are language and music? Research suggests that the relationship between the two may be even stronger than it appears at first glance. Let’s take a look at some of the surprising ways in which language and music are connected.

Music and language have more in common than you might think.
You’re not likely to confuse Beethoven’s Fifth for Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, but music and language have more in common than you might think. Image via Derek Gleeson / Wikipedia

1. They share the same basic building blocks

Even on a very basic level, music and language are similar in that both are compositional. This means they are made of small parts that combine to create something larger and more meaningful; in other words, their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

For example, languages consist of individual words that combine in meaningful ways to create sentences. In isolation, the words “I”, “you”, and “love” don’t mean much — but when combined into a sentence, “I love you”, suddenly they carry great importance.

Similarly, music — at its most basic level — consists of individual notes. Like words, these aren’t particularly meaningful by themselves: hearing an E flat in isolation likely won’t stir up any serious emotions. But when you combine the E flat with a C and a G, you have a C minor chord: something meaningful has been formed.

2. They involve the same areas of the brain

For decades, scientists have isolated specific brain regions that are responsible for the comprehension and production of language. One of the more notable regions is Broca’s area, which is located in the left-hemisphere frontal lobe and plays a crucial role in language comprehension and production. Specifically, Broca’s area seems to be responsible for our ability to use syntax —the structural rules that languages have so that sentences make sense.

Recent studies have also found that Broca’s area is crucial in the comprehension and analysis of music. Indeed, brain scans have found increased neural activity in Broca’s area when subjects heard and interpreted both speech and music. Further, research shows that, compared to non-musicians, musicians have a greater volume of grey matter in Broca’s area, suggesting that Broca’s area may be responsible for both speech and music.

3. Musical training can improve language skills

music and language
Image via Montserrat Labiaga Ferrer / flickr

In 2011, developmental psychologists from Justus-Liebig University in Germany conducted a study to examine the relationship between the development of music skills and language skills. To do this, they separated pre-schoolers into two groups, one of which received daily music lessons at school.

Later, they measured the pre-schoolers’ phonological awareness, which refers to their general ability to use and manipulate language. For example, children with good phonological awareness can recognize when words rhyme, can successfully identify individual sounds within words, and can blend together individual sounds to create words. Early phonological awareness has been shown to be a predictor of enhanced reading skills later in life.

The study found that the children who received daily music lessons ended up with higher levels of phonological awareness than those who did not. This suggests that the development of music skills and language skills go hand in hand, which makes sense if music and language are served by the same underlying brain areas.

As you can see, there are more parallels between language and music than meet the eye! On both a descriptive and neural level, language and music have a lot in common. As language learners, you can take advantage of this relationship by incorporating foreign-language music into your daily language-learning routine. In addition to providing you with great music to listen to, you’ll be exercising the same part of your brain that’s responsible for language skills.

Do you listen to music in your target language? What are some of your favorite foreign-language songs? Let us know — leave a comment!

Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service that offers German classes in Dublin, as well as courses for other languages all throughout the world. You can check out their free foreign-language level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com if you have any questions or if you’d like more information.


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