Correlation between language and music

October 24, 2007 at 06:38 PM · Can learning music/being musical aid in learning foreign languages or vice versa? What do you think?

Replies (49)

October 24, 2007 at 06:48 PM · i have developed post traumatic stress from the musicality discussion, so i am afraid to "think":).

here is a link showing what some investigators are working on (couple more articles in the bottom of that link),,,

October 24, 2007 at 07:09 PM · Haha, Al. My answer: yes.

October 24, 2007 at 08:28 PM · This is very interesting, and I've been wondering the same thing myself. Technically, should music be considered a language?

I've found that a lot of musicians I know enjoy studying languages. My own reasons include:

1.*insert favorite composer here* was *insert nationality* so I want to learn his native language.

2.Opera anyone?

3.I like the way it sounds when spoken.

4.Knowing a language and being able to communicate when my friends cannot makes me feel, well, elite.

And I would have to say that people do their best work when they are interested. So when we like a language and actually want to learn it, we learn it better than when we have no interest whatsoever.

October 24, 2007 at 07:56 PM · I think this is the most amazing thing about music: One can take a poem that seems beautiful to one and without having to understand the meaning watch just that emerge while putting it to music.

The words are allowed to come together where they feel comfortable.

To me it's absolutely amazing.

One of many...

October 24, 2007 at 08:49 PM · This is an extremely interesting topic. The answer is yes, absolutely. I know several people in music, and they are all very good with foreign languages. As violinists and musicians, we all have very sensitive hearing. When learning languages, it is essential to hear the sounds of the language and pick up the very subtle nuances of the dialect.

October 24, 2007 at 09:31 PM · Music is VERY helpful for language development in early childhood. Young children at an early age absorb their environment, picking up words and cadences, start babbling baby talk, and slowly build dialect and a vocabulary. Pediatricians use word count at age two as an indicator of intellectual success later in life. Those first few years of life are so important. Children's music is a great way to maximize word count by age two. Music early in life is priceless.

At one time I could cite the research for this but I don't recall this at this moment.

Children's music with rhythmic phrases that repeat are especially good: "There was a man lived in the moon, in the moon, in the moon. There was a man lived in the moon and his name was Akin Drum..." Also good are songs about children and their own worlds.

As a parent I have used this strategy to great success. We own a huge library of quality children's music, such as CDs by the great children's musician Raffi, and both of my daughters are now students in the gifted and talented program. They both are also talented musically. One has perfect pitch and composed her first piano composition at age 7. The other has near-perfect pitch and made chamber orchestra the last two years. (I highly recommend starting with Raffi's 3-CD Singable Songs Collection and the single CD Baby Beluga.)

Also good is Bach, Mozart and other melodic works that seem to tap into something naturally melodic or mathematical. (No Wagner, please.) Mozart piano sonatas, and Bach minuets and partitas come to mind, as well as CD's like "Brain Boosters for Babies," which includes previously released recordings from Phillips.

Music paired with body movement is also excellent, such as Musicgarten. Also, turn off the TV and instead buy massive amounts of books, starting with board books like "Brown Bear, Brown Bear."

There is also a direct correlation between parent investment in children and later success in life, and this includes time spent with kids. Think of a mother bear showing the cubs a wide range of life skills, which consumes time. Show me a struggling child and I will usually show you parents who excessively sit the kid in front of the TV.

By the way, singing foreign languages out loud is an accelerated way to learn a foreign language, but nobody does this because of the embarrassment factor.

Just my two cents.

October 24, 2007 at 09:32 PM · I'm blundering my way through Spanish with such booboos as "I'm HOT!" and "I love me" (damn reflexive verbs), but then again I don't claim to be a talented musician :( At least I am a good listener, and can understand some of the most incomprehensible dialects.

It's interesting that the intonation of Spanish word has echoes of the rhythms found in latin american music and dance. English feels slower with longer phrasing, much like our folk music.

October 24, 2007 at 10:45 PM · Greetings,

I also belive ther eis some correlation between the necessity to finish extraordinarily long sentences in German in a rush due to oxygen deprivation and the way German players tend to phrase. Perhaps Ms. Hahn could comment on this as she is fluent in German I believe.

I really can`t remember who it was but I recall an anecdote about how a famous player was doing a masterclass at Julliard and it wa smentioned that one should try and sing on the insturment. He reacted quite violnelty , arguing that it is actually the way we talk that correctly expresses music.

Yesterday I took out my old recording of Szigeti with Bruno Walter and it dawned on me that this was, for me, the absolutely most perfect realization of this concerto ever (even above Kreilser and Heifetz) and what he wa sdoing with the phrasing was much more varied than most players. It did indeed resemble a kind of speech, possibly Hungarian rather than an int5ernational langugae. I wonder if the ame thing permeates the Hungarian quartet (when it was actually Hungarian...)?



October 24, 2007 at 11:19 PM · I'd think it would be more strongly correlated with acquisition of math skills/abstract thinking (in relation to math theory,) than with language. The exception might be poetry, which can be very abstract.

October 24, 2007 at 11:24 PM · Greetings,

what could be more abstarct than Chomsky`s theories of Government Binding,



October 24, 2007 at 11:38 PM · How about a nonsequitor by Buri? ;)

October 25, 2007 at 01:52 PM · Seems to me that connections between both music and math, and language and music have been made before. Could it be that music has the ability to enhance both? Perhaps this is why it can be such a valuable tool for schools, to provide a linkage between them. Terry

October 25, 2007 at 06:07 PM · so here we go again:)

how about,,,some foreign languages are "easier" to learn than others, for native english speakers, with or without a music background.

for instance, learning spanish and learning chinese may require very different levels of effort or approach or mental gymnastics.

i wonder (in fact i doubt) buri would find learning japanese easier because of his violin background. ( but then again, it is also tough to dispute it for lack of comparison).

whether it is math, or foreign language, as they relate to music, i am not convinced that it is necessarily the nature or content of music that does the trick entirely; we should not overlook the benefit of having gone through the PROCESS of music education which helps pave the road to COLLATERALLY accumulate knowledge in other disciplines. the similar process of seriously studying chess early, or preparing for a spelling bee early...

kids who start on music early are often considered smarter. well, for good reasons. they have an early start on reasoning, memory, and logic, etc. they learn to look carefully, listen carefully and execute carefully. of course, they look smarter than their peers if all they do is watching tv! if they do well later with other endeavors, is that a causal relationship or association?

i know many musicians who are very musical and talented, but it seems that their talent is limited to music,,, i am not sure if that limitation is by choice or by design.

October 25, 2007 at 05:49 PM · After thinking on it awhile, I think I agree with everything you say Al. Some very good points.

I wonder if knowledge of western music would make the learning of western languages (English or other Indo-European languages) easier, but probably do nothing for the learning of eastern languages (Chinese, Japanese, etc)

October 25, 2007 at 07:20 PM · The 'hear it yourself' link in this article contains a really interesting discussion of the flip side of Sarah's question, i.e can one's native language influence musical ability. (The first few moments are a bit painful, but it's worth persevering with the 18 or so minutes of the broadcast).

If Diana Deutsch, music psychologist, is correct, then we would all have better pitch if we had learned Chinese.

October 25, 2007 at 07:27 PM · Alison, thanks for the great link! I'm listening to it now, and i is very interesting!

October 25, 2007 at 08:42 PM · Wow,this is really interesting, Alison - Thanks!

October 26, 2007 at 04:13 AM · That was a really interesting link Alison. I guess in order to get a really good discussion we'd have to find an ethnomusicology, linguistics, or music psychology experts to chime in. Hello out there all you musicology experts!!!

The woman performing the study, Diana Deutsch, is careful not to draw any conclusions. But it is interesting that in her study of Eastman music students that the asian ones performed "exponentially" better than their nonasian counterparts in the tonal recognition section. The moderator keeps pushing, but Deutsch won't make the connection that the asian ones are more musically inclined, just that they are more likely to have perfect pitch. She also mentions that music is very similar to speaking.

I wonder if there are other, more important elements, than just perfect pitch that more clearly differentiate an excellent musician from an ordinary one.

October 26, 2007 at 12:29 PM · terry, as you may very well know, a simple mention of "chinese" language is suggestive but may be misleading because of the several main dialects.

someone who grows up speaking mandarin may have a totally different concept of intonation from someone who grows up on cantonese, or shanghainese or taiwanese for that matter. the pingying of mandarin certainly helps kids appreciating issues with intonation, or they may call mom a horse. mandarin was mentioned in the study but how about chinese kids who grow up multi-dialected?

it is prudent that the investigator did not draw any hard conclusion from that study because it is a simple observational finding. when the 2 cohorts were separated by language background, retrospectively, a key element was not thoroughly studied: quality of MUSIC ear training since childhood for all the subjects studied...

October 26, 2007 at 02:08 PM · Al, I think her point was that "tonal" languages such as chinese were the ones that were isolated, which wouldn't necessarily exclude dialects, which I believe would also be all tonally based. But it's also very hard to say when one listens to an interview from public radio, or reads a more or less not totally scholarly journal like Science or Scientific America, to really glean a scientific approach to anything. It often leaves open more questions than answers until really solid conclusions are made that are suitable for dispersion to the general public. I agree that the investigator was wise to leave the conclusions unmade.

And any conclusion regarding how tonal recognition links to music, as you say, cannot be made fairly unless the quality of music training is investigated as well. It would be similar to drawing a conclusion about a particular group being more intelligent than another without looking at income, upbringing, and education as factors. In our instance, one needs to determine the key differences between music students who come halfway across the globe to go to school at Eastman, versus mostly American-born caucasians, and work out the statistics. The classic "correlation does not lead to causation" principle is at work here.

October 26, 2007 at 03:52 PM · I can’t get the linked article for some reason so I don’t know if this is mentioned in that article.

The original question is about correlation rather than causation. The latter is extremely hard to establish and even conceptually problematic, philosophically speaking.

It would be interesting to see some study done at a school that teaches foreign language to the beginners to see what the correlations between the best, average and poorest language performers against their background in music studying looks like. This may give you some idea whether there’s a strong correlation between foreign language acquisition and music. And then test the more advanced language students to see if what the correlation is, based on an assumption that just because someone is good at acquiring a foreign language doesn’t mean he/she will be equally good at developing it to a more sophisticated level. The second test will likely be more difficult to design because, unlike testing the beginners with similar language background, the advanced students may have different history of studying of this particular language so more contributing factors need to be taken into account.

Personally, I know more philosophy than language students and professors who are also musicians, but I don’t know how much one can make of this personal observation other than saying, cool!

October 26, 2007 at 04:15 PM · Alison's link can also be found here:

The original link doesn't seem to be working or something...

October 26, 2007 at 05:03 PM · It sometimes behaves so strangely...sorry about that

October 27, 2007 at 08:06 AM · Probably not very on topic, but I find that when I watch violinists interviewed, for example, Gitlis and Perlman, that their facial mannerisms and speech patterns are extremely reminiscent of their playing. For example, Perlman has a constantly changing and inviting expression, with a warm decisiveness, that is in his communication with both speech and violin. With Gitlis there is that explosive throw away quality, with the underlying sensitivity.

It surely links to why I feel uncomfortable about some of the criticisms of performances sometimes posted; they amount to criticisms of the performer's self.

October 27, 2007 at 02:32 PM · Interesting observation and comments, but I’m not sure your last point follows. Aren’t facial mannerisms and speech patterns part of one’s self-expression rather than the person himself? To me, these self-expressions are similar to the expression in one’s violin playing in that no matter how personal it is, it’s should not be reduced to the person himself. If a professional violinist can’t have some kind of artistic distance between his performance and himself as a person, I wonder how long his personal and career life will happily last.

I notice that in academic world, there is a strong tendency that one’s worthiness is very much defined by his/her work. Hopefully, people in other fields are treating each other differently:)

October 27, 2007 at 02:55 PM · Well written Yixi and I completely agree with you.The Protestant Work Ethic (i.e you are your work)is alive and well in my profession.It leads to so much burn-out and depression amongst musicians.Objectivity is sometimes the saving grace...

October 27, 2007 at 07:37 PM · Well I agree about academics. Still, with my own publications, years of intense effort and careful thought, as well as difficult negotiations of the swamps of editorial boards etc., go into them, and so when I review the work of others in my field I am careful to remember what they have gone through to get to the point of publication, even though I might utterly disagree with their stance. Many reviewers however just use reviewing to make themselves look good, which I despise.

Similarly, some of the facile criticisms one reads of really fine violinists seem to me in their reductionist approaches to deny not only the effort but the humanity of the performer.

I agree with you that is not very much connected with the feeling I have that a kind of DNA runs through everything a person does, whether it is talking, or playing the violin. That is probably located not so much in interpretative choices but in unconscious tendencies.

I st

October 27, 2007 at 10:17 PM · Personal attack is never necessary and often it discredits the critic him/herself. It can also be embarrassing for the critic to find out later that the same point demonstrated by someone else in a much gentler and balanced way.

I also agree that we can see some consistent pattern or style in a person’s various forms of expression. The totality of these expressions may give out animpression of a person. It certainly allows others to distinguish a person A from a person B. I still don’t think a person him or herself ought to be equated to a total sum of the perceivable features or characteristics of that person (Bertrand Russell’s bundle theory of personal identity is way too simplistic and naïve to my taste).

Pattern recognition is part of the nature of our perception, and it’s much easier to look for similarities among various unrelated features, entities and works than seeking beyond the patterns that we have perceived to discover and explore the differences among them. To me the latter is where intellectual rigor resides.

As some philosopher said, a thing is itself and not something else. To see the sameness in different things is part of our human limitation.

Idle thoughts.

October 28, 2007 at 11:06 PM · I discussed scientific research on topics under discussion here in my blog of Oct. 17, 2006. Specifically, about the connection between music and language in the brain:

Music and spoken language

Broca’s area is a small part of the cortex which handles many tasks of spoken language and musical abilities. The amount of gray matter (neurons) in Broca’s area is larger in musicians than in nonmusicians. In fact, the volume of gray matter in this brain region increases as the number of years of playing increases. In most people, the amount of gray matter in Broca’s area decreases with age, but in musicians, this does not happen.

October 29, 2007 at 02:01 AM · I also see a connection between music and math. There are child prodigies in math and in music, but not in other fields that I'm aware of, although small children can be multilingual if they grew up in a multilingual environment. Math and music have several things in common. They are nonverbal; they rely heavily on the ability to recognize patterns; there are abstract concepts necessary for each. Contrary to a lot of public opinion, many scientists and physicians are music lovers and/or amateur musicians.

October 29, 2007 at 10:35 AM · I think it should help. Musicians have an excellent ear and better than normal aural memory. Reproducing and remembering new sounds would therefore be easier.

A friend of mine (violinist) was drafted into the military many years ago, and given a test to see where he would be most useful. He wanted to work in intelligence (having watched a lot of James Bond movies, I guess) and unsurprisingly outscored everyone on listening to many series of dit-dah patterns and writing them down..

He spent his military years transcribing Morse Code messages rather than drinking champagne and driving sports

October 29, 2007 at 12:09 PM · I think I read that the "logic" side of the brain, the left side, handles logic. Language, math, computer programming etc. falls into this category. The right side of the brain however handles creativity, which is art.

Those that are right handed has a "dominant" left brain and those left handed has a "dominant" right brain. That's why they say left handed people are usually quite creative.

In terms of music, I guess you need both... the left side of the brain to handle the logics of the violin techniques... and the right side of the brain to handle the creativity side.

I feel like I'm talking rubbish. I speak 7 languages. Does that mean I should give up my violin, piano and cello now?

p/s: are you THE Sarah Chang????

October 29, 2007 at 12:02 PM · I've been meaning to weigh in on this topic for some time. Interesting discussion so far.

The idea of pitch sensitivity varying based upon which language one speaks makes sense to me. I'm not sure where I read this, but before they start to learn language systems, babies produce all sorts of sounds, from all sorts of languages. Gradually, those that are needed for one language are emphasized, while others are 'unlearned'. Aural recognition develops, and begins to interpret some sounds as 'words' and others as 'noises'. As intonation is inherent to some Asian languages, it makes sense that sensitivity to pitch is (and remains) more prevalent than in other language groups.

I also believe that aural skills (yes, ear training) can be developed using either language or music, and that one can influence the other. The work that we do on articulation, rhythm, pitch, etc. all influences how we comprehend another language. We're used to listening carefully. I teach English as a foreign language part-time, and observing how students listen and repeat is particularly interesting to me. Often, blocks in pronunciation or in comprehension are caused by the refusal or inability to recognise a new sound as language.

Likewise, after I had spent two hard years trying to short-circuit my brain and simply play what I heard without analysing it, learning German was a breeze - I've never had an accent.

Of course, analysis can also be useful: understanding systems is integral both to languages and to music. Recently I saw a television program on autistic savants. One of the people profiled was an English 'language genius'. They showed him looking at a pile of newspapers and naming the languages, saying what the headlines said, and sometimes reading them. Most interesting was the fact that he could often understand languages without being able to pronounce them (he knew what was said but not how). The neuroscientist talking to him explained that he sees language only as a system, and not as a means of communication. It seemed similar with the musical savant profiled, a teenage boy from Austria. He could identify any note on the keyboard in a second (probably any note at all), and could identify wrong tones played in context. But he couldn't accept the wrong tones; instead, they destroyed his patterns. He was shown playing, and it seemed to me that he was just playing systems. Interestingly, he could play very well, but hadn't been trained (i.e. his technique was not what I'd expected), and the music (interpretation)had much in common with the speech patterns of other autistics shown during the documentary.

Of course, there are other sides to this: physiology; memory; intent. If you have nothing to express, you aren't going to learn any words, or music, unless you're intrigued by their patterns.

Buri wrote:

"I also belive ther eis some correlation between the necessity to finish extraordinarily long sentences in German in a rush due to oxygen deprivation and the way German players tend to phrase."

Interesting that you mention this. One of the things I discovered when I'd gotten over the first hurdles of speaking a foreign language all the time was that I had to know what I was saying before I began a sentence when I was speaking in German. In English, you have a lot of chances to wiggle around and define what you want to say as you say it; in German, because the verb comes at the end, you have to have a much more holistic conception of an idea. I think this might reflect in playing, as it certainly does in everyday life.

October 29, 2007 at 01:25 PM · I think this is the most amazing thing about music: One can take a poem that seems beautiful to one, and...,without having to understand the meaning, watch just that emerge – while putting it to music.

The words are allowed to come together where they feel comfortable.

To me it's absolutely amazing.

One of many...

I also love how words have sounds:

tweet tweet, peep peep, coo coo and chirping.

Vegetable is also one of my favorite words it goes from one side of the mouth to the other, except with American dipthongs it slips down the back and beyond the inside...

Do people who eat a lot of vegetables actually make good chanters?

Little grunts make good accompaniment for bored players int he pitts.


October 29, 2007 at 04:43 PM · Hi Roelof,

I don't think there are any dipthongs, american or otherwise, in vegetable. Perhaps you are a carrot with the desire to be lettuce? Let us not forget that words often sweeten music, because that is their nature, whether or not they have slipped on a banana peel.Unless the words are sweedish, which has it's own dulce nature, like radish.

October 29, 2007 at 05:25 PM · See, Roelof, I can do it too!

October 29, 2007 at 04:55 PM · sound like grape to me:)

October 29, 2007 at 04:46 PM · Now, seriously, I have also read that there is a much higher incidence of perfect pitch amongst speakers of Chinese. The assumption is that that's because it's a tonal language and so more pitch oriented. I've also heard though, that even in various English dialects, the precise note that speakers start on, and the melodic contour of the phrase are distinctive for each of those dialects. So, why don't we have just as high an incidence of perfect pitch?

As for languages and music helping each other, I think you could easily argue that much of language structure maps onto music. Phonemes are like articulations or pairs of contrasting sounds. Allophones are like different kinds of, for example, spiccato that individuals make, but that are all considered to be, and all function as "spiccato" relative to other articulations. Vocabulary is mapable onto harmony and I even recall that as we learned harmony in school, they refered to various types of chordal patterns as "harmonic vocabulary", etc. etc.

So with this much deep structure in common, and considering that both subjects exist for the purpose of communication, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they shared a lot of the same machinery in the brain. So I'm not surprised at all that folks who are good at music are also good at languages.

Oh, and hopefully Karen Allendoerfer will comment on this, since she's a neuroscientist or something like that...

October 30, 2007 at 03:29 AM · Interesting thread. I didn't have time to read everything, sorry. Yesterday I had the chance to talk with a Chilean lady who speaks English very well, although her accent is thick. We had an interesting discussion about how hard it is to get rid of an accent. She mentioned something insightful. She said when we're little, we don't just learn the syntax and words, we learn the rhythms and phrase shapes. It's much easier to learn the words/decoding processes than it is to learn the underlying pulse, apparently. Language is certainly a musical endeavor! I love her accent and I hope she keeps it forever.

October 29, 2007 at 07:04 PM · Kimberlee wrote:

"She said when we're little, we don't just learn the syntax and words, we learn the rhythms and phrase shapes. It's much easier to learn the words/decoding processes than it is to learn the underlying pulse, apparently."

That's the rub, if you ask me. As we get older, we learn what we 'should' interpret as language - and we fail to notice what comes between, because we take it for granted and don't attribute any meaning to it. But we can learn to do it again - if we let go of what we think we 'should' be trying to say, and just listen and imitate.

October 29, 2007 at 09:36 PM · Oh, I see...


And in the end, when I don't take part in this orgy...this social chastizement....this entertainment.

I get poisoned.

October 29, 2007 at 10:36 PM · Wow, really interesting so far! Let's keep it going! :)

And William, no, unfortunately I'm not, haha. Although it would be nice...

November 14, 2007 at 07:38 AM · absoulutely...that's how I learned a lot of russian acually, I would sing the tapes and stuff...sounds weird, but I do everything musically

November 14, 2007 at 08:15 AM · Greetings,

Have you ever read the writing of the average muscian?



November 14, 2007 at 10:22 AM · Sometimes.

November 15, 2007 at 08:14 PM · For what it's worth, I know good musicians who failed miserably learning languages, a mandarin speaker who struggled to learn an instrument and I am a polyglot though not an advanced musician.

I wonder whether much of it might be more to do with a) exposure (whether to music/music learning or to other languages from an early age

b) desire/motivation to learn other languages

My husband, who is quite able musically, struggled at school with learning any foreign language.

Yet now we've been living in Poland for the past 7 years he's learned to speak it fluently if not perfectly (it is hard as nouns/allsorts change and agree, so nothing stays the same - can't give a technical explanation - I learned parrot fashion, minus grammatical explanations and I have an aversion to grammar)

The motivation came in the form of a desire to live here and the necessity to communicate or live in semi-isolation relying on me as interpreter

Interestingly, with no background in Slav languages, unlike other such (English background speakers) folk, his accent is very good. So perhaps the musical ear comes in there.

I didn't have a good start with the two instruments I tried as a child (piano teacher was 'for beginners only' - the violin teacher didn't care that I had too large an instrument and unsuitable set up.

But no genius there to carry me through regardless.

Yet given even limited exposure, I seem to have collected languages along the way, speaking with fluency and without getting them mixed up. I seem to remember a lot with no exposure for years at a time. If I want to learn it, I can.

Maybe it's more a case of liking something, therefore it's easier to think about it, therefore it becomes easier to learn.

Also, once you know a language well, learning another from the same language group is tons easier, because you 'understand' more of the language sooner than someone without that background.

My internet is too slow for me to listen to the links people have posted at this stage, so I'm a bit in the dark there.

I'll try and have a listen sometime in the next few weeks.

November 16, 2007 at 01:46 AM · My French and Orchestra teachers both agree that being musical can aid the learner in learning the language.

Ofcourse they both say that Chinese, French, and Italian are the most helpful of most languages.

My French teacher is highly skilled(but not pro) harpist, and organist!


My Orchestra teacher speaks Chinese(she has no asain decent she just studied with several teachers of oriental decent)

November 18, 2007 at 09:57 AM · Music is language...

Music is Univeral

Yet it seems people try to destroy it..

With the words they use

Even in jest

About it

As it goes...

Where sincerity were equivilent to a kindness:

How people speak of music (not of ability to use music but of music) this becomes equivilent to what's the next call for the game...

It becomes like trying to win that certain organ from the body which has been murdered already and has not life.

November 19, 2007 at 04:29 PM · um...

musical language and the language of sound

of words...

It's sometimes best to just see what happens but both come together if they may (and should have started that way.

The music guides the words even when you thought words (in your mind) had another direction.

Sorry I am not where I can clip an example right now.

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