Music And Language A Developmental Comparison Essay


1 Introduction

2 Language vs. Music? Exploring Music’s Links to Language
2.1 Comparing the Structure of Language and Music
2.1.1 Structural Units
2.1.2 Rhythm in Language and Music
2.2 Language Processing vs. Music Processing? Comparing the Neural Processing of Language and Music
2.2.1 The Cerebral Hemispheres and their Function in Language Processing
2.2.2 Music Perception
Musical Syntax
Musical Semantics

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Language and music—both can be found in every human society—are the most basic socio-cognitive domains of the human species. At first glance, they share fundamental similarities, such as being based on acoustic modalities and involving complex sound sequences. Language, as well as music, functions as a means of communication and a form of expression. Both systems are organized into hierarchically structured sequences, and a written system was developed for language and for music.

The interest in music-language relations has a long history, of course, and does not originate with modern cognitive science:

The topic has long drawn interest from a wide range of thinkers, including philosophers, biologists, poets, composers, linguists, and musicologists. Over 2,000 years ago, Plato claimed that the power of certain musical modes to uplift the spirit stemmed from their resemblance to the sounds of noble speech (Neubauer, 1986). Much later, Darwin (1871) considered how a form of communication intermediate between modern language and music may have been the origin of our species’ communicative abilities. Many other historical figures have contemplated music-language relations, including Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This long line of speculative thinking has continued down to the modern era (e.g., Bernstein, 1976). In the era of cognitive science, however, research into this topic is undergoing a dramatic shift, using new concepts and tools to advance from suggestions and analogies to empirical research.[1]

The production of music and language is a prime example of the human brain’s capacities. But does the brain process music as it processes language? Are language and music processed in the same hemisphere(s)? Are linguistic and musical irregularities processed by the same brain area(s)? What are the cognitive differences and similarities? And how can brain activity be measured? These and other very complex questions are to be approached in this seminar paper. The central interest is to explore and compare some of the structural and cognitive properties of language and music (and the links between them) in order to find out whether music is language-like in certain regards. The central questions are: Does music have something like a grammar or syntax? Is music able to transfer meaningful information?

Chapter 2.1 examines the structural units of language and music (2.1.1) as well as rhythm in language and music (2.1.2). Chapter 2.2 is to compare the neuronal processing of language and music. Chapter 2.2.1 provides a basis for the understanding of language and music processing in the brain and deals with the issue of language lateralization, the brain’s main language areas etc. Chapter 2.2.2 presents music perception models and examines whether syntax and semantics are concepts that can be applied to music. The use of comparative research is to provide insights into the architecture of both music and language.

2 Language vs. Music? Exploring Music’s Links to Language

Patel argues that “from the standpoint of modern cognitive science, music-language relations have barely begun to be explored.”[2] However, the interdisciplinary relations between language and music have become more and more interesting for researchers from all over the world. Patel has an explanation for the general interest in this research field:

Humans are unparalleled in their ability to make sense out of sound. In many other branches of our experience (e.g., visual perception, touch), we can learn much from studying the behavior and brains of other animals because our experience is not that different from theirs. When it comes to language and music, however, our species is unique (…).[3]

“While different cultures have different musical forms, it seems likely that there are some universal (probably biological) connections between language and music.”[4] What is certain is that musical parameters play a very important role in the comprehension of a language:

Alle formalen, suprasegmentalen Elemente der Sprache sind musikalischer Natur – Melodie, Rhythmus und Dynamik der Sprache. Obwohl formal, bestimmen sie doch stark den Inhalt der Aussage, präzisieren ihn und verkürzen die Redezeit.[5]

Before taking a closer look at some of the suprasegmental characteristics of language and music in chapter 2.1.2, the structural units of both systems are briefly compared.

2.1 Comparing the Structure of Language and Music

2.1.1 Structural Units

Every human infant is born into a world with two distinct sound systems. The first is linguistic and includes the vowels, consonants, and pitch contrasts of the native language. The second is musical and includes the timbres and pitches of the culture’s music.[6]

Language and music are acoustic phenomenons and rely on changing acoustic patterns that are modulated in addition to pitch evolvement. The basis for both systems is a limited set of sounds and signs, which—according to established rules—can be combined, providing endless possible combinations. Every language is based on a limited repertoire of phonemes, the smallest units of sound, and—due to language-specific phonological rules—a limited number of syllables, which allow endless possible combinations to semantically meaningful units, such as morphemes, words, clauses and phrases. The rule inventory of these possible combinations to longer phrases is determined by the language-specific grammar.[7] Our language system is modularly organized into syntax, morphology, phonology, semantics etc. The syntax module, for example, produces syntactic strings on the basis of a systematic and recursive rule system. Language follows the “Principle of Compositionality”, also known as “Frege’s Principle”: the meaning of a sentence is determined by the sum of all parts of it and the rules used to combine it. The meaning of a word is acquired; you learn it with the word itself. But how is music structured?

Music, the art of arranging the sounds of voices or instruments, is also based on a limited number of sounds, notes, or tones. Every sound has several perceptual aspects, such as pitch, loudness, length, and timbre. Each of these properties can vary independently of the other, but the human mind is nevertheless able to distinguish “several categories along any of these dimensions”.[8] “Some sort of musical scale is widely used among many different cultures. All divide up the octave.”[9]

In Western European “equal-tempered” music (the basis of most of Western music today), each octave is divided into 12 equal-sized intervals such that each note is approximately 6% higher in frequency than the note below. This ratio is referred to as a “semitone.” (…) The 12 semitones of the octave are the “tonal material” of Western music (…): They provide the raw materials from which different scales are constructed.[10]

Several tones at the same time can be combined to intervals and harmonies. Certain intervals appear in the scales of many cultures:

For example, the fifth (which is the most important interval in Western music after the octave) is also important in a wide range of other musical traditions, ranging from large musical cultures to India and China to the music of small tribes in the islands of Oceania (…).[11]

Musical sequences follow certain principles of harmony. Harmony refers to movements from one pitch simultaneously to another, and the structural principles that govern the chord progressions. Harmonic principles explain—and predict—chord progressions. In Western music, harmonic principles are governed by the Circle of fifth, which determines the next harmonical sound. It encodes harmonic relations and distance between the keys used in a musical sequence. In the fifth, a key is harmonically closest to another one if it is a neighboring key. Progressions such as D-G-C, for example, are common and perceived as harmonic. Harmonic principles, thus, trigger musical expectations just like a “linguistic grammar” does. Hierarchical principles organize a musical sequence as a whole on the basis of harmonical similarity, beat, and other grouping principles. But do harmonic regularities make up a musical syntax? Can these principles be defined as “musical grammar”? We’ll come back to these questions in chapter 2.2.2.

2.1.2 Rhythm in Language and Music

Rhythm is another important structural element of language and music, as linguistic and musical acoustic signals are rhythmically organized:

Speech and music involve the systematic temporal, accentual, and phrasal patterning of sound. That is, both are rhythmic, and their rhythms show both important similarities and differences. One similarity is grouping structure: In both domains, elements (such as tones and words) are grouped into higher level units such as phrases. A key difference is temporal periodicity, which is widespread in musical rhythm but lacking in speech rhythm.[12]

Languages can be divided into three groups based on their rhythmical characteristics:

1) Stress-timed languages, such as English and German (the syllables are stressed at roughly regular intervals, unstressed syllables are often shortened or weakened)
2) Syllable-timed languages, such as Spanish and French (these languages are timed by the syllables that are stressed)
3) Mora-timed languages, such as Japanese (the rhythmic units are moras, phonological units determining the syllable weight)

Infants are very sensitive for the rhythmic characteristics of language and learn quickly to follow the rhythmic-prosodic characteristics of the language they hear. Studies also revealed that infants perceive the rhythmical structure of music.[13] Patterns of rhythm, stress, intonation, phrasing, and contour most likely drive the early learning in both language and music:

Such prosodic information is the first human-produced external sound source available in utero; the filtering properties of the fluid-filled reproductive system leave rhythmic cues intact relative to high-frequency information. Fetuses avail themselves of the incoming rhythmic patterns; (…) this is a process of implicit, nonreinforced learning.[14]

Language and music share a similar coding system, that is, both relate to temporal patterns such as time, stress, and pauses. The succession of time intervals with different durations establishes rhythm and beat. In language, the time patterns do not function as autonomous structural units, but depend on other linguistic levels, such as morphology. In music, in contrast, time patterns play an autonomous role: they structure sound sequences and create musical segments. Patel emphasizes further differences between language and music:

To take a few examples, music organizes pitch and rhythm in ways that speech does not, and lacks the specificity of language in terms of semantic meaning. Language grammar is guilt from categories that are absent in music (such as nouns and verbs), whereas music appears to have much deeper power over our emotions than does ordinary speech. Furthermore, there is a long history in neuropsychology of documenting cases in which brain damage or brain abnormality impairs one domain but spares the other (e.g., amusia and aphasia). Considerations such as these have led to the suggestion that music and language have minimal cognitive overlap (e.g., Marin & Perry, 1999; Peretz, 2006).[15]


[1] Aniruddh D. Patel (2008): Music, Language, and the Brain. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, p. 4. Patel is a senior fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, who based his work on research from the field of cognitive science and neuroscience.

[2] Patel (2008): Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 3.

[3] Patel (2008): Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 3.

[4] Bernard J. Baars (2007): “Prosody and melody”, in: Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience, edited by Baars & Nicole M. Gage. Amsterdam, Boston, Heidelberg et al.: Elsevier, p. 391.

[5] Stephan Sallat (2008): „Sprache und Musik“ in: Musikalische Fähigkeiten im Fokus von Sprachentwicklung und Sprachentwicklungsstörungen. Wissenschaftliche Schriften im Schulz-Kirchner-Verlag. Reihe 3: Beiträge zur Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft, Band 118. Idstein: Schulz-Kirchner, p. 5. Original quotation in: Johannes Pahn (ed.) (2000): „Musik in der Sprache – Sprache in der Musik“, in: Sprache und Musik: Beiträge der 71. Jahrestagung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Sprach- und Stimmheilkunde e.V., Berlin, 12.-13. März 1999. Stuttgart: Steiner, p. 124.

[6] Patel (2008): “Musical Sound Systems” in: Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 9.

[7] Cp. Sallat (2008): „Sprache und Musik“, p. 6.

[8] Cp. Patel (2008): “Musical Sound Systems” in: Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 12.

[9] Baars (2007): “Prosody and melody”, in: Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience, p. 335. – There are 12 available pitches per octave in Western music, out of which 7 are usually chosen to make a musical scale (e.g. the diatonic major scale). Cp. Patel (2008): “Musical Sound Systems” the Brain, p. 17.

[10] Patel (2008): “Musical Sound Systems”, p. 15.

[11] Patel (2008): “Musical Sound Systems”, p. 16.

[12] Patel (2008): “Rhythm”, in: Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 177.

[13] Cp. Sallat (2008): „Sprache und Musik“, p. 8. Sallat refers to a study conducted by Jusczyk & Krumhansl in 1993 (cp. “Pitch and Rhythmic Patterns Effecting Infants’ Sensitivity to Musical Phrase Structure”, in: Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 19 (3), 627-640).

[14] Erin McMullen & Jenny R. Saffran (2004): “Music and Language: A Developmental Comparison”, in: Music Perception, Vol. 21, No. 3. University of Wisconsin-Madison, p. 294.

[15] Patel (2008): Music, Language, and the Brain, p. 4.

"We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams." – Arthur O'Shaughnessy (as quoted in the film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

Before "high stakes tests" were invented, teachers created their own "high stakes tests." My high school civics teacher required that each student write from memory the preamble to the Constitution in order to pass the class. If you recall, the preamble starts, "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…" and goes on for about six lines.

Thankfully, all my years of watching TV were not a total waste of time (as my mother warned me they would be). I had watched the School House Rock series on Saturday mornings and remembered a cartoon and song with the preamble to the Constitution in the lyrics. I sang that song to myself during the test and passed with ease. This memory has always reinforced to me that music can be a strong tool for memorization and learning new information.

Language learning offers a unique and exciting opportunity to integrate music. Many people have had the experience of learning a world language and singing simple, silly songs in class. The introduction of music provides a light-hearted and fun way to interact with another language and culture.

Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom

In fact, music and language are linked in Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The multiple intelligences theory states that there are eight basic ways that people are "smart." In this case, "smart" is defined as the strengths that each learner has in acquiring new information. The eight intelligences are:

  • Linguistic intelligence (word smart)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (number/reasoning smart)
  • Spatial intelligence (picture smart)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (body smart)
  • Musical and Linguistic intelligence (music and language smart)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (people smart)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (self smart)
  • Naturalist intelligence (nature smart)

Using the multiple intelligences in teaching, a teacher can present content with a variety of activities in the lesson to appeal to students' various strengths. For example, in a social studies lesson on the Great Depression, a teacher may engage students with logical-mathematical intelligence by presenting a problem that a family faced due to their income and the things they needed to buy to survive. To engage students with interpersonal intelligence, the teacher may want to set up group work or role play activities. Musical and linguistic intelligence could be supported by listening to and analyzing popular songs from the times. Every person has these intelligences, but we all have our preferences and strengths, so a lesson plan that includes a variety of activities is bound to capture students' attention and facilitate learning.

In addition, it's worth noting that different kinds of activities may give ELLs an opportunity to participate in ways that build their confidence or fit their learning styles — a student who is shy or insecure may surprise with you a music or art assignment!

Integrating Music

Music can also be a creative way to enhance student writing. I like to play soft music when my students are doing a writing activity. This helps to establish a calm environment for students to focus and relax while they organize their thoughts and choose their words.

I've also used a variety of music to assist students in expanding vocabulary and learning synonyms. For example, I play a selection of soft classical music and have the students write down all the adjectives that come to mind. When they finish writing, I have them share the words they wrote down. Students often have quite a variety of words that they can share and teach each other. For more advanced students, this creates a wonderful opportunity to discuss the subtle nuances of words. For example, students discuss the difference between words such as, "sorrow" and "sad" or "calm" and "peaceful." I then introduce more varieties of music to elicit angry, excited, or happy vocabulary.

A fun listening activity to use with older students is to bring in a recording of a song and give the students a handout with every seventh or tenth word missing. Play the song and see how many blanks the students are able to fill in. This is very challenging because the lyrics go very fast, and the pronunciation and stress are different than in spoken language. My students have always loved this activity and usually want to listen to the song a couple of times to see if they can get all the words. If you are willing to perform, students also like to sing the song once they have all the words.

Finally, music can be a powerful tool for learning new concepts or memorizing information. Lisa Grigorieff, a kindergarten and first grade teacher, wrote in her bright idea of how to use music to learn the alphabet. She uses the tune from "Who let the dogs out? (woof, woof, woof)" and instead uses the alphabet. For example, "Who let the A out?" Young students get to sing and dance while repeating alphabet letters using a modern, catchy tune. She uses visual materials from the reading curriculum to reinforce the learning. Grigorieff says, "[the students] retained the letter sounds faster than peers in the same grade who did not do this song, and went up on DIBELS scoring with Nonsense word fluency."

Building Upon Students' Culture

Another important way to tie together language learning and music is by building upon musical traditions that are part of students' cultures. ELLs may be able to talk or write about these traditions for a class project, or compare songs or nursery rhymes from different countries. Parents can also play a fun part in this activity by sharing songs with the class or at a parent night event. Most importantly, however, parents need to be reminded of the benefits of sharing these songs with their own children — from preserving their own family traditions and developing students' self-esteem building early literacy skills.

Pulling It All Together

There are many interesting ways to use music to facilitate language learning, and I encourage you to explore different options that will work for you and your students. You may want to visit the hotlinks in this section to find the wide variety of lyrics, songs and lesson activities that are available on the Web. By introducing music as part of learning, you bring to your students a powerful and long-lasting memory tool that they can rely on in future learning situations.

I know how powerful music can be. I would love to replace all the 70s TV theme songs and advertising jingles that are permanently stuck in my head with more valuable information. (Okay Mom, you were a little right about the TV, but at least some of it was educational.) To my teachers' credit, I still remember some educational content as related to songs we learned — Big John (coal mines), Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, to name a few. I hope you have a great response from your students when you introduce music in learning, and who knows? Maybe twenty years from now they'll still have those songs in their heads!

Hot links

The Best Music Websites For Learning English

Larry Ferlazzo shares his favorite sites for using music to help students learn English.

Using Music to Help Children Learn Languages

This blog post offers ideas for using music to help children learn new languages.

Using Music to Teach Language to ELLS

ELL expert Judie Haynes shares discussion about switching between two languages when singing in bilingual classrooms.

Writing Development of ELL Students in a Music Classroom

Music teacher Valerie Erickson-Mesias shares some of her ideas for connect music to writing instruction for ELLs in this presentation.

Kennedy Arts (ArtsEdge)

ARTSEDGE, the National Arts and Education Network, provides the tools to develop interdisciplinary curricula that fully integrate the arts with other academic subjects. ARTSEDGE offers free, standards-based teaching materials, as well as professional development resources, student materials, and guidelines for arts-based instruction and assessment.

José-Luis Orozco: Spanish Children's Music

José-Luis Orozco is an author and recording artist whose work draws upon the rich heritage of the Spanish-speaking world. Through his music, José-Luis has sought to expose a wider audience to Spanish-language children's traditions and promote Latin American culture. These cds are excellent tools for young children.

Putumayo World Music

Putumayo World Music was established to introduce people to the music of the world's cultures. The Putumayo Kids division was created to introduce children to other cultures through fun, upbeat world music.

Songs for Teaching

This site has lots of downloadable lyrics, sound clips, sheet music, and teaching suggestions. Full songs are available for purchase.

Musical and Linguistic Lesson Plan

This page is an example of a lesson plan that integrates music and language.

Report: Arts as a Tool for Teachers of English Language Learners

This report from the New York State Department of Education explores the linguistic, academic, and social-emotional benefits of using arts education with ELLs.

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