Saturday, October 14, 2006

Music, Language, and the Brain

I've had music on the brain lately, with my thinking mostly centered on the relationship between language development and music. We know, for example, that the one thing that typically distinguishes non-native speakers is intonation, or the musical tones of a language. Accent, vocabulary, grammar and syntax can all be perfect but if the intonation is off, then somehow we deduce almost immediately that the person speaking is not talking in his or her native tongue. And, of course, as we all are aware, intonation--pitch, for example--can convey meaning more than any other mechanism in language. This was a question I always had when I studied Chomsky's deep structure. What about meaning? What about intonation? Where does it fit in?

I've been wondering if this seemingly innate capability to notice and then learn the differences in pitch, duration, and frequency form the foundation for music in our lives. Or is language development so tied to music that without it, we couldn't develop the ability to understand others and express ourselves? It certainly is the beginning of "hearing" and categorizing phonemes, the smallest sounds in a language that convey meaning. Each phoneme is composed of a very particular pitch, frequency, and duration. Sounds like a description of music, doesn't it? And how does emotion, something we feel so deeply and often when we hear music, fit in? Do we associate touch and sound in a glimmering memory of a mother's coos and rising pitch of delight while cuddling her newborn.

There was a wonderful show today on NPR on Musical Language, produced by Radio Lab. Fortunately, you can access the free podcast. I urge you to take a listen. The relationship between language and music is examined as are tonal languages. One fascinating topic came up: the virtuosity on musical instruments (comparing Chinese students to American kids), which is seemingly quite common at early ages in countries where tonal languages are spoken. There may be very early practice on perfect pitch. Examination of many of the greats in musical composing shows that these artists also had perfect pitch.

And to bring this topic home: what role can music play in keeping our brains healthy? We've all heard that learning to play a new instrument is great for our brains. And learning a new language (with new intonation) helps, too. They both help build cognitive reserve. But what part does listening to, and deeply feeling, music play in keeping our brains healthy throughout our lives?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A book has recently been published on music-language relations: "Music, Language and the Brain" (Oxford Univ. Press).