Music, Language and Your Brain

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” He was more right than he knew. New studies are showing that the brain does in fact treat music as a language.

In the most recent example, researchers found a way to scan the brains of jazz musicians while they were “trading fours,” or improvising solos back and forth. Dr. Charles Limb of John Hopkins University, the senior author of the study, told LiveScience that in the MRI, the musicians’ brains appeared to process music almost the same way they processed language. Specifically, the parts of the brain associated with linguistic elements like syntax lit up like a Christmas tree.  However, the areas related to semantics, or the meaning of words, became very quiet.

According to Dr. Limb:

“Syntax has more to do with grammar and the structure of language — basically the rules of language,” Limb explained. “Semantics has more to do with the meaning of words. So, if music has semantics, it’s not processed in the way that is traditionally used for language.”

Additionally, according to an article in yesterday’s Guardian, teaching young children music may help them become better foreign language learners. The author, Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay, draws upon a variety of recent studies as evidence, a well as statistics from her home country of Finland. Children in Finland start learning music quite early, but don’t start learning languages until nine at the earliest. However, they generally end up able to speak at least three languages fluently.

According to Henriksson-Macaulay,

“Music training plays a key role in the development of a foreign language in its grammar, colloquialisms and vocabulary. One recent study found that when children aged nine and under were taught music for just one hour a week, research concluded that they exhibited a higher ability to learn both the grammar and the pronunciation of foreign languages, compared to their classmates who had learned a different extracurricular activity.”

Image credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by L. Richard Martin, Jr.