Music a Universal Language?

Music a Universal Language?

When we talk to each other, a huge amount of the meaning in those noises is learnt.

Language is picked up from an early age through listening to our parents,

then schooling – where one has access to it – teaches us more: vocab tests, spelling tests, grammar tests.

We learn the connotations and different usage of words through conversation and reading.

And all other spoken languages are incomprehensible to us.

But there are signs and symbols that carry meaning no matter what your language.

Facial expressions, for example, have been shown by the work of Paul Ekman to be the same in people who were raised in isolated parts of New Guinea without contact with other cultures.

When New Guineans were happy they smiled, when sad they frowned, and when angry they furrowed their brows, and they recognised the facial expressions made by people from other cultures. It seems that no matter what language you speak, you can convey an emotion to any other human being through your expression. Smiling is a language we all understand.

But what about music? Music is similar to facial expressions in that it produces an emotional response but contains no other inherent meaning. And while you have to take music lessons to learn to read sheet music, you do not need to be taught to understand the emotional content of your record collection.

In the Western tradition, minor keys are associated with sadness or fear. Major keys tend to be positive, associated with excitement or happiness. A fact used by the composers of film scores to amplify the emotions of the drama as you watch it.

But is this emotional language of music universal? Is the major key as international as a smile?

It would seem so. For example, in the case of one study: Canadians and Pygmies were played the same music – some from the Western canon and some from the Pygmy’s – and the researchers compared the emotional responses of each person to each track. The responses for both the Canadians and the Pygmies were the same.

Similarly a study comparing different languages’s preferences for seeing certain rhythms (ref) found that although the Italian participants differed from the Turkish and Persian participants in how they sorted linguistic noises, all three groups treated he musical rhythms the same way.

The signs point towards there being something in all of us that responds to music in much the same way (ref). Of course this is a general point and there are exceptions, something like Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’ will probably get very different responses from different people, but most likely everyone everywhere will tear up at the first few chords of ‘Hallelujah’.


The Benefits of Singing Lessons for Children

The Benefits of Singing Lessons for Children

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests developing a child’s musical ability does have an impact on their more general intellectual development. Especially in their ability to handle language. This short article provides some background research which points towards the benefits of singing lessons for children.

The link between learning an instrument and language skills is most commonly tested in what are known as longitudinal studies, where groups of mostly similar people are observed over months or years to see what effect their differences have over the long term. For example one study took a group of 24 children and split them into two groups, giving one group music lessons and one group painting lessons. The two groups were then tested over a period of several years on their the ability to recognise the separations between words in continuous speech. The two groups were then compared, finding that the musicians were far better at recognising the separations.

If studies like this seems overly specific it is because they are. Each study proves little on its own and its purpose isn’t to confirm or disprove the idea that music and language learning are connected. Instead these studies isolate aspects of how music and language are linked, and what effect they have on each other. Cumulatively these studies add up to a picture of how the two skills are interwoven.

Increasingly this picture suggests that music lessons have definite benefits for a child’s linguistic development ref.

This stands somewhat to reason. Learning to play an instrument involves regularly practicing a skill that combines concentration, memory, fine motor skills, interpreting sheet music, and close-listening. These skills have crossover with those involved in speaking ability and literacy. As one paper puts it: “From an early age, musicians learn complex motor and auditory skills… which they practice extensively from childhood throughout their entire careers.” ref

There is a caveat to all this though, the benefits come from the active playing of an instrument, not from just listening to music or passive involvement in group lessons ref.


It is in the doing of music rather than in just learning it, that makes the difference.

Image: Copyright StasB

Rhythm and Language

Rhythm and Language

The link between music and language is a hot topic, and one that can be highly theoretical. However, in among the strange claims of whale-song boosting the IQ of unborn babies there are ways of teasing out details of this link in practical ways.

To take a single example: a team at Cambridge University compared how children with Specific Language Impairments (SLIs) dealt with aspects of speech and music such as pitch, phonology (the units of sound that make up language) and rhythm (the tempo of those sounds) ref. By comparing the children’s performance on music and speech tests the team could then see if the two were linked.

The children were split into three groups – those with no SLI to act as a control group, and representing the general population. Then there were two groups of children with SLIs: those with otherwise normal phonology and reading (Pure SLI) and those whose phonology and reading was also impaired (SLI PPR). They were then subjected to a wide variety of tests including things like picking the non-rhyming word out of a triplet (cat, dog, sat), tapping along to a metronome, and identifying which sounds were the same in triplets when the pitch of one item was altered.

The children with otherwise normal phonology and reading showed no significant difference to the control group, except in the ability to tap in time to the metronome while the group of children with reading and phonology difficulties found most of the tests significantly more difficult.

From this study it seems that the ability to recognise rhythm in music is tied to the development of language, and that activities working on rhythm could have a positive impact on children with SLIs. It also indicates that music and rhythm could positively affect children with SLI difficulties in reading and phonology.

written by Jon Pill