How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.


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