Thursday, July 22, 2010
Are musicians good linguists?
A new report from Northwestern University suggests that musical study can improve foreign language learning skills. Just as physical exercise improves body fitness, it says, musical training can improve auditory fitness.
How? The literature review released yesterday suggests that the neural connections made during music training "primes the brain" for other features of communication. These include not only foreign language skills, but also speech, memory, attention and vocal emotion.
But I wonder if the language and music connections might work at least somewhat in both directions: can the important features of your native language also have some effect on musical skills?
Here is a small piece of evidence about the possible effect of language on music: I had a conversation a few weeks ago, with an American cellist, who is both a performer and a professor of music. We were talking about his foreign students, particularly Chinese students. I asked about their strengths and weaknesses. He said that his Chinese music students were as technically proficient as they come, that they were practiced and perfect, note by note. But their musicality -- their sensitivity to the overall phrasing and "soul" of the music -- came up short.
I wonder if this shortcoming in musicality might begin with the absolutely obligatory Chinese attention (from the day children start acquiring their language!) to tones of words. Word tone is critical in Chinese; the meaning of a (spoken) syllable like "shi" is carried in its tone. Tones on words trump phrasing, or intonation, or stress in Chinese. Without proper word tones, all is lost!
Of course, Chinese teachers' early training of young Chinese musicians is also a factor in development of musical talent, but it is worth considering that emphasis in Chinese language on words (notes) over phrases and sentence intonation (musicality) could play a role as well.
(image from greensparrow.se)