Music and Language

Good news to fans of foreign musicians, your idols may have an easier time learning to speak your language (as compared to celebrity footballers or dancers).

Research has found that the part of your brain that processes language is much enlarged in musicians, meaning that learning music uses pretty much the same brain area as learning a language. The link may be obvious to you, for the songs produced by people of a particular country will closely resemble the linguistic norms of that country. For instance, in English the first syllable of a word is stressed more often than the last syllable, whereas for French it’s usually vice versa. If you listen to their music, the French tend to make their final note longer than the English. Surely, of course, this is more evident in compositional instrumental pieces than in our modern pop songs, but maybe this is how we can separate music into genres by nationality, as I mentioned before. “Japanese” music will indeed have a different feel from, say, “Spanish”.

What is more relevant to us fans is that musicians find it easier to learn a second language. Maybe this is why Theresa Teng can so ably sing in so many languages when she didn’t receive much education as a child. I don’t know if this means language prodigies will also be better at music, but I guess music and language can be alike in so many ways. Both require one to know the pacing and intonation of syllables, and of course to memorise sounds and speak them in a melodious way.

I haven’t been very meticulous in my argument earlier. If you think about it, surely composers are different from singers, who in turn are different from performers. How do they differ in their involvement in music, and subsequently their language development? Fortunately, this is not a Saturday entry, and therefore I can very confidently say, I don’t know. However, my educated guess will tell me that most research was done on composers, who translated their own linguistic patterns into the tunes they created. As for singers and performers, in performing the songs they became more sensitive to pacing and pitch, which in turn helps them when they practise learning a new language. Therefore composition sets the laws and performance improves the skills to follow other laws.

Most people will be arguing with me about this now. Surely not everyone who picks up a guitar is better at learning Chinese than the other fellow! Well indeed, having a well-defined brain area only gives you the tool, but knowing how to wield it is a different thing. It is still more reliable to learn languages early, such as before the age of 12, and to be exposed to this language a lot. Having a musical background just means you get to absorb the lessons more effectively.

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