Examining music, language and the brain

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As a musician I'm fascinated by recent scientific research that documents how music affects the brain.  Most of us love to listen to music, but few of us have a clear idea what those sounds actually do to our brains – how music works to lift our spirits or to sooth us into peaceful slumber.

This week I chanced across the results of some research that especially tweaked my interest and I want to share it with you.

A joint Canadian/American scientific study reveals that non-musicians who speak tonal languages may have a better ear for learning musical notes.

I knew that recent science has proven that children who learn to play a musical instrument, or who sing, excel in learning languages. But here was a study that said the reverse was also true. (www.plosone.org/article/authors/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0060676)

Tonal languages are those that have a very large number of high and low pitch patterns, where pitch nuances, sometimes within a single word, can dramatically alter the meaning of the word.  In general, Asian, African and South American languages are tonal – Cantonese, for example, has six different tones.

Not only does music influence language learning, and language influences musical learning, the study also suggests that those who speak a tonal language and who receive musical training have higher cognitive abilities in general. Learning is enhanced in the lives of children who have access to music training, whether it be in private lessons, school music classes, in choirs, bands, orchestras, or through playing by ear in indie music groups of various sorts.

We are just about to launch into the Sackville Music Festival week (May 3-8), an annual spring event in which young people who are studying music and/or the spoken arts such as recitation and theatre, come together to share their performances with Sackville audiences and to receive recognition and helpful suggestions from experts in each field. Anyone can come to listen to these talented children perform for mere nickels – no longer pennies – which are funnelled directly back into the festival so that it can continue year after year. These fortunate children are receiving the benefits of their music study in every course they take at school.

In addition, many of them are learning to speak second and third languages, the study of which boosts their performance in music as well as in other subjects. It's a win-win-win situation.

In the Sackville Tribune-Post I was thrilled to read about the new music recording studio that Tanya Bostick has helped students at Tantramar High School build. What a tremendous incentive for young musicians, and how keen they are to learn to use this state-of-the-art equipment. It will be fun to listen to Sackville musicians who emerge as a direct result of this initiative. Perhaps we will discover that Sackville's future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers have worked in this music recording studio, too.

Science is proving what  musicians and teachers have known all along: that the child who experiences the joy of music-making also enjoys the added perk of a significantly enhanced learning experience in their school subjects.

As adults it is not too late to enjoy this scientifically-proven music and language bonus. Increasing numbers of Sackville adults are participating in music courses and performance groups, as well as in amateur theatre groups and related courses for the sheer fun of it.

To name just a few: church choirs; the Mount Allison Choral Society open to community members;  the Sackville Citizens' Band; the always-popular courses in music appreciation, languages, and theatre studies offered at both the Tantramar Seniors' College and Mount Allison University; and private music lessons with local Sackville music teachers.

Sackville soundscapes are not only the sounds in places like restaurants, the Waterfowl Park, or underground tunnels. The performance of music and poetry by our own residents creates beautiful soundscapes.

Let's get out this spring and enjoy many of the wonderful festivals and concerts our town has to offer, either as active participants, or as active listeners.

Perhaps someone will step forward to offer a course in Beginning Cantonese so we can add six tones to our monotone English language brains and enjoy a greatly enhanced life!

Happy Listening!


Janet Hammock is a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus of music at Mount Allison University. She is a certified deep listening artist and teacher.



Organizations: Mount Allison University, Tantramar High School, Mount Allison Choral Society Citizens'

Geographic location: Tantramar, Waterfowl Park

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Recent comments

  • Bernd Willimek
    December 30, 2013 - 10:33

    Music and Emotions The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions. An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly. Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed. But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically. Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration: www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf or on the online journal EUNOMIOS: www.eunomios.org Enjoy reading Bernd Willimek