Some aspects of how music and language may interact

The past decade has seen a number of studies (actually over 150 that I could find) that attest to a co-operation (or at least an interaction) between musical ability and the development of language.  Some of these studies are well researched such as how early musical training can facilitate language and language development, while other studies that are less rigorous attest to the relationship between hearing in utero and future language development.  A great resource comes from Dr. Nina Kraus’s laboratory (http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts).  On the homepage of her web site, Nina is the one in the very center kneeling down.  If you have a free afternoon or evening, get your favorite drink and settle down to some interesting reading and viewing.

I recall an anecdote told by a conductor for a symphony orchestra up here in Canada- Boris Brott.  Maestro Brott frequently told a story: – his pregnant mother would play her cello and that must have imprinted on him some music knowledge.  Later in life he heard a piece (that his mother had played during the pregnancy) and he claimed to know it, having never heard it before.

This, of course, opens up the entire realm of research (which I don’t really want to touch on in any detail) about what a fetus actually can hear- never mind what external noise, speech, and music may do to the fetus’s brain.  We know that there is about a 30-decibel loss between sound in the air and sound in fluid (10log10-3) where only 0.001% of the sound gets through, so it’s conceivable (if you’ll excuse the pun) that the unborn fetus would be able to detect speech and music in the womb.  It’s an entirely different area of research when it gets to perception, and anyone who knows more about this than I (probably almost everyone) should feel free to contact me and we’ll get you write a guest blog on the effects of VERY early music exposure on the development of the brain.

But back to the title of this blog- some aspects of how music and language may interact…. We have a significant body of research that shows that early music exposure can facilitate language.  We have only scant research that suggests that knowledge of certain language types can facilitate music.  There are a class of tonal languages in the world where the pitch changes on the low-frequency vowels (and sometimes nasals) convey meaning.  These are called tone languages.

English is not a tone language despite the rise and fall of pitch in English. These intonation contours may indicate surprise, a yes/no question (where the pitch increases at the end of the sentence) or any number of syntactic or stylistic indicators, but tone in English does not change the meaning of a word; it merely assists the listener with additional (but not necessary) auditory cues.  In contrast, Chinese is a tonal language where the exact nature of the pitch change on the vowel can convey a different meaning.  In Chinese, the word /ma/ can mean 4 different things depending on whether the tone is rising, falling, flat, or rising then falling.

It is clear that knowing a tonal language does not make you a better musician.  I haven’t seen Mozart or John Lennon in a couple of months now, but I’m positive that when I see them next, they will agree with me.  Being a great musician is such a complex thing that merely being aware of tones and tone changes is not a big issue.  However, it turns out that speaking some tonal languages such as Cantonese (a two-tone dialect of Chinese) may get the brain ready for some musical training.

This is precisely what some Canadian researchers are doing at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.  And no, I am not flogging this research because I am from Toronto- you haven’t heard me ever say anything about the amazing Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team!  Well, maybe there was a reason for that, but the Rotman Research Institute is much better than the Maple Leafs ever were (except perhaps prior to the 1967 Stanley Cup finals).  Like Nina Kraus’s Brainvolts web site mentioned above, for a great afternoon of reading, check out the Rotman Research Institute’s site at http://www.baycrest.org/research .

In some of their more recent work, researchers there have shown that speaking some tonal languages (such as Cantonese) does indeed assist the brain in performing some musical tasks.   This is not too surprising since many of the cortical structures that are used for language are also used for music.

So, as John Lennon and Mozart would say, don’t lose any sleep if you happen not to speak a tonal language. You can still be a great musician.  The take-home message is that we now have research that says that early musical training can assist in language and certain speech perception tasks AND also that speaking some tonal languages may assist the brain for any future musical training.   Neat, eh?

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About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.