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


  1. Has there been any research into whether certain languages take longer for native speakers to acquire (that is, do Chinese children begin to speak later than French children, for example)?

  2. While tones are indeed important, I think 'the meaning of a spoken carried in its tone' might be overstating the case a bit. Context is also important. Mandarin Chinese has just 4 tones, but there are far more than 4 words with pinyin transcription 'shi' - to figure out exactly which is intended in a given phrase, you have to use the context. So I'm not sure that individual words are emphasized so much more relative to complete phrases in Chinese than they are in other languages.

    In particular, it's actually impossible to articulate tones while singing...each syllable of the lyrics to a given song is tied to (at least one) note whose place in the (rising or falling) melodic line may have nothing to do with that syllable's tone in spoken language. So listeners can't use tone at all to understand sung lyrics - they have to rely on context alone. And I don't think native Chinese speakers really have a harder time understanding Chinese songs than native English speakers have with English songs - I know native Chinese speakers to whom this problem of tones while singing had never occurred until they were asked specifically about it.

    Actually I'd speculate (without proof, admittedly) that to (fledgeling) native speakers, tones are phonemes just like any other phonemes and not necessarily more difficult to learn or distinguish than other kinds. Just as a simple example, I (a native English speaker) have trouble distinguishing between the Hungarian 'o with an umlaut' and 'o with a double acute accent' and am sure it'd be tough for me to remember when and how to say which one; it's not obvious to me that tones would be harder to learn.

    I'd guess (again without proof) that musicality is just harder to teach and to learn than technique, especially in the context of the constant drills, memorization, and repetition that the Chinese education system is known for. I'm not saying that musicality is somehow easier than technique in America. It's more that American kids who are sufficiently motivated to do all the work needed to acquire good technique on a musical instrument usually are so because they feel they really get something out of playing music, and that in turn usually goes hand in hand with some sense of personal musicality. I'd guess it's more automatic for Chinese kids to tackle their technique problems first
    since technique issues are more likely to be fixable with the kinds of repeated exercises they get all day in school and again for homework.
    That kind of approach seems more likely to produce folks whose technical skills are more advanced than their musicality. Of course this is a gross simplification, and I apologize for dealing in stereotypes here - the above discussion is meant as a line drawn to guide the eye, so to speak, not some kind of absolute law, and it may or may not apply to specific individuals.

  3. Are musicians good linguists? <-- that's what i was looking for
    Dissertation Literature Review

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