Music and Language

Singing foreign words rather just repeating them aloud aids learning.

Most of us have learned the building blocks of written language, the alphabet, through song. An alphabet-song seems to be a culturally very common way to teach children letters. However, all methods have their faults. According to the acclaimed book This is your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, the rhythmic patterning of the US alphabet song has led many children to believe there is a letter in the English language called “ellemmenno”...

Alongside the alphabet, music is also a natural part of how children learn speech. As described in a recent post, Motherese, or the way in which caregivers speak to their children is actually closer to song than speech. It exaggerates prosody to the extent of resembling melody, which helps children detect the words more easily and ultimately learn more efficiently.

Sometimes there does seem to be a very fine line between what is perceived as language or as music. The song-to-speech illusion was discovered by researcher Diana Deutch in 1995. In her study, subjects listened to a part of a phrase on repeat. When subjects were asked to repeat the phrase just as they had heard it, instead of speaking, they would sing! Therefore, sometimes the only characteristic separating music from speech is repetition.

What about individuals who have practiced music for years? Have they gained some lasting advantage in the processing of language?

Childhood is a very learning-intensive period, especially in terms of language. However, studies have shown that music can also help language learning during adulthood. A recently published study found that subjects could recall a list of words more accurately if there was background music playing while they memorized, rather than environmental sounds or silence.  Previously, it has also been found that singing foreign words rather just repeating them aloud aids learning. In the study 60 adults were randomly assigned to speaking, rhythmic speaking, and singing groups. The participants listened to a phrase first spoken in English, then repeated twice in Hungarian. They were then asked to repeat the Hungarian phrase aloud, either by singing, speaking rhythmically or by speaking normally. The participants in the singing group had significantly better performance in subsequent tests for production, recall, recognition, and vocabulary of the learned content than the participants in the speaking and rhythmic speaking groups. The practice phase in the study lasted for only 15 minutes.

Musically trained individuals have indeed been found to have an advantage in language-related tasks. For instance, a paper showed that musically trained individuals were better at detecting speech in noisy conditions. A later study presented further evidence for enhanced neural processing of speech in noise in musicians.

A paper showed that musically trained individuals were better at detecting speech in noisy conditions.

In addition to speech processing, musical ability has been linked to better reading skills. A study published in 2002 found a positive correlation between musical skills, early reading ability and phonological awareness (a precursor to reading ability) in 4-5 year old children.  Recently, researchers also found that a musical intervention was as effective as a special computerized training program targeting reading skills in improving the reading skills of children with poor abilities.

In addition to studies examining the correlation between musical skills, musicianship and language skills, longitudinal investigations have started accumulating, suggesting connections between music training and improvement in language-related tasks. For instance, a study by Sylvain Moreno and his colleagues published in 2009, found that only six months of music training improved reading abilities as well as enhanced neural processing of speech sounds. The subjects were 8 year olds who were assigned to either a music training or painting group. Future longitudinal studies on music training and its effects on language development will shed light on the extent of transfer effects that music training can have on language-related skills. Nevertheless, the connection between music skills and language skills seems to be a rather robust finding.

There is ample evidence of overlap between brain areas active during language and music processing.

It is thought that the advantages that music training provides for language processing arise from both processes tapping into common brain mechanisms. There is ample evidence of overlap between brain areas active during language and music processing. However, for music training to transfer to benefits in language processing, just overlap of brain areas isn’t enough. Researcher Aniruddh Patel has proposed the popular OPERA hypothesis recently reviewed here, describing what requirements there are for music training to exert an effect on language. The hypothesis suggests that musical training can support language processing from:

  1. Overlap in neural networks that process sound characteristics related to both music and speech
  2. Precision: music training requires more precision in processing of information - resulting in more accurate skills,
  3. Emotion: music training elicits (positive) emotions and engagement,
  4. Repetition: music training is repeated,
  5. Attention: music training requires sustained attention.

Many of these characteristics are present in most types of music training. Music and speech both require analysis of auditory content and motor production and there is an overlap between areas that are active in music and language processing. However, music training also requires more fine-tuned processing of, for instance, pitch than speech does. In music, accurate detection of pitch changes is essential for understanding melody, but in speech, the meaning of words can be deciphered with the help of contextual cues if the intonation is flat (even in tonal languages). The three last characteristics of the OPERA hypothesis are more prone to variation: if a student is not motivated about music training, the emotions associated with it will be predominantly negative and there will be little engagement. Similarly, repetition as well as attention depend on motivation and engagement. All in all, the OPERA hypothesis seems reasonable. However, in the field there is ongoing discussion on even the very first premise: overlap of neural networks and what it signifies. Is it just overlap, or do music and language processing actually share resources

There is also evidence ... of individuals with brain lesions losing the capability to process music, but retaining all language skills, supporting the theory of sepration in neural processing.

Recently, researchers Isabel Peretz, Dominique Vuvan, Marie-Élaine Lagrois, and Jorge Armony published an insightful and comprehensive review discussing the overlap in the neural foundations of music and language. They write that even though two processes activate the same area in the brain, it does not necessarily signify that they tap into exactly the same neural populations in that area. According to the review, more refined statistical analyses of activations in the brain have already shown that even though music and language activate same areas, the activations patterns within these areas differ. There is also evidence, reviewed here, of individuals with brain lesions losing the capability to process music, but retaining all language skills, supporting the theory of separation in neural processing of music and language.

In summary, the connection between language and music is one of the most fascinating and rich areas of research within the neuroscience of music. Studies have shown that there is significant overlap between areas that are needed in the processing of music and language. Musically trained individuals exhibit enhanced language skills and longitudinal studies have pointed towards a causal relationship between music training and this enhancement. However, even though there is overlap in brain areas, music and language processing have been connected to different patterns of activation within these areas. Also, lesion studies have shown that processing of music can be damaged, while language processing stays intact. Future studies with advances in imaging and analysis methodologies will help clarify this connection. Understanding the shared and separate neurobiological basis of both will take us closer to answering exciting questions such as whether and how music can be used to help individuals with language difficulties, and ultimately perhaps even provide insights into how language and music evolved.

written by ketki karanam



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