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Jodi B

Music and language: Is there a connection?

December 2, 2008 at 6:44 PM

My daughter was very excited about learning a language this year at school; she chose Spanish. I was amazed how quickly she has been learning the language, it comes very natural to her.

When I talked to her Spanish teacher at conferences, she was surprised to hear that it was her first year of a language class; she thought that she was at least in her second year.

One time, in gym class, my daughter told one of her friends in Mandorin Chinese that "he was crazy". He did a double-take and ask her to say it again. He went on to tell her that she was the first of his American friends to actually get the accent perfect and told her to say something else.

Lately, I have been thinking about the connection that music has in language development. Because language is based on pitch flucuation; do we, as musicians, have an advantage when it comes to learning language? Is that why my daughter seems to pick up on the Mandorin Chinese language (which I find difficult) so well?

What are your thoughts and what have been your experiences/stories?

From Paul G.
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 6:55 PM

Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language but it's nothing when you study something like Arabic. Encourage her to keep up with her Spanish and maybe incorporate other languages like Mandarin, French, German etc. After just a few months of learning Spanish, it's not difficult to pronounce things right. Learning Spanish is something that your daughter and yourself can do together, and talking in the language around the house helps a lot too.

I am currently only working on Spanish and American Sign Language, but I hope to learn French and Mandarin in the future. Your daughter's language skills will help her out in life.

 Espero que su hija ha divertido el aprendizaje del Espanol! Se beneficiara en gran medida su.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 7:07 PM

Holà, Bonjour, Hi, Zdrastvouï,Hallo

Joking...  My experiences were my spanish classes at school, I understand quite well when I read but I haven't done any since two years!  For German, it was great for a beginner self-taught but I would have needed courses to progress... And a very weird thing is that since many of my idols are Russian + (instrument teacher and accompagnists) and that I often go on russian websites for musical infos and I know the prononciation of each letter of their alphabet and there is many words common to Russian and french (because of something historical, I think. + I am french speaking), I can read well in Russian without understanding what I am actually reading!  So, I look very bright when I read some things in Russian to my family and sometimes recognize some words that are common to french and guess the meaning of a sentence!  My parents say, how can you read those funny letters!  It's only a code! I would say it would be the next language I would like to learn if I would have 50 hours a day and live 200 years old but I prefer learning the language of violin over all these!

But, yes, I really think that their is a link between people who play the violin, like it and stick at it and language learning abilities. The link is probably: people with good memories and sequence memory! (which thing goes after another)

any neuropsycholosists who can tell us their advice?



From Richard Averna
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 8:02 PM

Actually there is a greater connection between music and math. 

From Elizabeth Musil
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 7:54 PM

Jodi, thanks for a wonderful blog!  This is an excellent topic!

I have always been good at learning foreign languages, but never made a connection between ease of learning a foreign language and whether or not someone plays the violin or another instrument.  I have however noticed that generally speaking (but not always) that most people are either more inclined towards math/sciences, or learn languages easier, but not both.  The reason for this, at least from my observations, is that math is logical - there are set rules and equations that when used, always give the same answer. 2 plus 2 is 4.  You'll never get anything different.  In comparison, langauges are always changing and mutating, and to learn a foreign language requires not only good memory and listening skills, but flexibility, because 2 plus 2 might equal 4 in one instance but 10 in another.  In languages everything depends so much on the situation and interpretation - for example the same sentence with the same words can change in meaning depending on how you say it, or which words you enunciate.  And while there are rules in every language (grammar), there are so many exceptions and different ways of expressing the same things that it can drive a person who tries to think logically insane.  It's for this reason that when learning a foreign language you can't translate literally word-for-word but rather have to look at the meaning as a whole.

Music is very similar to language.  In music there are also set rules, but how you interpret and play the music will vary from person to person.  Two people can play the same notes on a page but will come out with something completely different, in how it sounds, and also the technique used to play it (ie. a beginner would play a piece mostly in first position, someone more advanced would shift).  A musician also would not look at each note individually but would look at how they fit together as a whole to derive their meaning - again very similar to languages. 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 8:21 PM

Richard, what you say is true, however, I have notice often the contrary in violin!  I have notice than often, very good pianists are more "maths" persons than violinists. I think  it is because the fact that pianists have to be more "logical to read 3-4 lines at the same time and thus have more than one rythme to count at the same time. Thus, pianist are the best sight readers I have ever know, they often outweigh violinist in this. So, great mathematic skills are needed there. My observation is that violinist have to be more like poets because they create the sound from 0. The difficulty in violin, is to to ear in your head each pitch, each note (like language words) before putting a finger on the violin because there is no frets, no keys. + is is very "tactile" and about the body in the space. Vertical motion of bow combine with orizontal shifting and horizontal vibratos to moving right elbow in differentlevels. Finally, memorizing all the position certainly requires much memory. So, I think we have always heard that music was related to maths because of the counting aspect but is is not "complex" maths like, proving or demonstrate equations, work with the solar system, or making statistics. (I just think than learning an instrument like any other complex thing is good for young children and can help them to learn how to concentrate.)It is more the rythme sense + violin has its own special requirements and maybe personnalities and "brain working in general" of persons is different from one instrument to another. I have a band (no strings)that is established near my home and know many wind instrument players, their personnalities are nice but totally different from violinists or string's people.  Here again, a whole discussion could be generate from brain working and personnalities in different instruments. Drummers, for example, don't think like other musicians because drum as specifical its own specific requirements...and so on!


From Paul G.
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 8:27 PM

Very interesting comment Elizabeth.

I do see that link of what your talking about. With math and set rules and how language differs away. With something as simple as Spanish (for some, not me! I find it difficult), there are so many things you have to remember, and your always changing things around like stems and conjugations.

It's also interesting how you pointed out the language/grammar skills and math/science skills- you either have one, but not both. And I see that in myself. I suck at math, but I memorized the first digits of Pi after reading a Wikipedia article... 


Then I learned it in binary: 11.0010010000111111011

Then Hexadecimal: 3.243F6A8885A308D31319

I really have no idea what it means, but I memorized the numbers. There's just something with math that I struggle in seeing the way it works, but I don't have that struggle with literature. When I memorized those few digits, I didn't use patterns or mnemonic techniques like many do, I simply saw what was in front of me. Things like that seem easy for me... I have to use 4 different passwords each day for the things I do like computer access and security etc, and they are each 14-digit alpha-numeric codes which I didn't struggle memorizing at all, yet I could easily forget my locker comb after coming back from a lenghy time away from school.

I think that there should be schools for artists who excell in some places, but struggle greatly in others. Like for instance, those who struggle in reading, the curriculum could be changed to meet their needs... The novel for the term could be about a composer and he/she's life, this way capturing the student's attention. And those who struggle in math, instead of figuring the geometry of a shape, it could be changed to figure the geometry of a sculpture or something if you know where I'm coming from. I wish something existed like the descirbed. A school in which an artist could thrive through their fine art, yet be helped in the academic field where they may faulter.

From Ian T
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 5:28 AM

Mention of Mandarin reminds me of an episode on tonal language (languages that utilize pitch inflections to distinguish various meanings) and its relation to our capacity for grasping music from excellent NPR show called Radio Lab.

Interesting discussion, I'd like to chime in with some of my own thoughts once I'm done with finals...

Here's the link to the previously mentioned episode (you can listen to the whole thing online or download it):

From Stephen Symchych
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 6:02 AM

 I'd say no based on a very small sample (mine).  I'm a musician, but dreaded learning languages in school.  I ended up taking Latin so I wouldn't have to do the conversation thing.

At a more extreme level, my 9-year-old has excellent pitch and memory for music, but has a language learning disability that puts him on the autism spectrum.  He can be an excellent mimic of accents, but receptive language is a real problem.


From al ku
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 1:42 PM

jodi,,,here is a link on the link,,,

and make sure your kid learns mandarin, not mandorin.:)    we are serious about tonal inflections here!

From Jodi B
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 3:31 PM

Al... sorry, I knew I would catch ::crud:: from you :)

Mandarin, mandorin.... potato patato....

Cool language though!

From Royce Faina
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 3:46 PM

speaking of tonal changes and inflections, Navajo is a real bear! one glottal added or missed changes a word or a whole sentence, so I was told by a Navajo man.

From al ku
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 4:01 PM

i grew up listening to szhechuan-ese (ala hot and spicy food) from my paternal grandpa side and shanghai-nese from my maternal grandpa side.  i myself for biz  travel speak mandarin and cantonese,  and mandarin coded words to my kids when caddying  their golf competitions :). 

therefore, by reasoning,  i am extremely innate-talented in music. 

just kidding,  forgot to apply myself...:)

From Ryan Wicks
Posted on December 3, 2008 at 6:33 PM

 This topic reminds me of a set of 9 essays that were published in Nature a few months ago. They were focused on current research into music, and the link between language and music is a big theme (lots of other neat topics too. ie. the role of math in composition, the psychology and physiology of music, music and evolution, etc.).|ujournal&sp-q-min-1=Nature&sp-q-max-1=Nature&sp-q-1=Nature&sp-x-1=ujournal&sp-p-1=phrase&sp-q=%22Science%20%26%20Music%22&sp-p=all&sp-s=0&sp-c=10&sp-q-min-15=20070101&sp-q-max-15=20081231&sp-x-15=pubdate_ymd

You'll need access to the online journal to actually read the articles, either through a University or your public library. If you're really interested in reading them, but can't get a copy through your library, send me an e-mail and I'll make you a pdf of the articles.

From Benjamin K
Posted on December 5, 2008 at 3:06 PM

"Mandarin" is a colonial term we probably shouldn't be using anyway. 

So, if you have trouble remembering whether it is mandarin or mandorin, perhaps you want to consider using the correct term "Putongwa", pronounced Poo-tongue-wah, which is what the Chinese call it, it means "standard language" (literally "normal speak").

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