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

So you think you’re tone deaf?

So you think you’re tone deaf?

‘I can’t sing. I’m actually tone-deaf.’

This is a surprisingly common response when people find out that I’m a singing teacher. But of all the people in the world who get out of karaoke and carol singing with this line, very few actually are tone-deaf.

Tone-deafness, known as ‘amusia’ in its medical sense, is a cognitive issue linked to how the brain processes musical information. Usually sound is processed by the auditory cortex in the brain, before being sent on to the frontal and parietal cortices. This is a bit like when a document is proofread by one person for grammar, and then the corrected version is sent to another person to check for meaning. Amusia occurs when auditory information goes separately to these areas, but the two proofreaders don’t benefit from the insight of the other and so miss some errors. [1] This can show up as difficulty with recognizing pitch.

 is how high or low a sound is. How does this work? When any sound is made we hear it because the instrument makes the air vibrate. Imagine the strings inside a piano – of varying lengths. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer hits a string and it vibrates the air around it – shorter strings vibrate faster (higher pitch), longer strings vibrate more slowly (lower pitch). This vibration hits your eardrum, which sends a message to your brain.

Not all pitch problems are tone-deafness.[2] There are lots of reasons why someone might find pitch-matching difficult; lack of technique or experience, or perhaps growing up with little exposure to music. But in my experience the most common and most restrictive reason is lack of confidence. It only takes being told once or twice ‘that sounds awful!’ for a person to avoid it at all costs, creating negative associations with singing. Singing then becomes a psychological battle, inhibiting good breathing technique and tensing muscles in the vocal tract when they should be relaxed. This affects the sound produced, reinforcing the idea that they ‘can’t sing’, and so the vicious cycle continues.

In these cases, vocal training can allow the student to learn to correct their pitch through relaxation of their vocal instrument and through ear-training. This can be a revolutionary and exciting prospect for those who love to sing but have never been confident in their ability to hold a tune.

So, if you love to sing, but you’ve always thought you couldn’t carry a tune some vocal training could be the key – go on, try it!

[1] This process is discussed on singwise here, but the mildly shaky analogy is my own

[2]For an interesting article on how tone-deafness is measured see:
Sloboda, J. Wise. K, and Peretz, I. (2005) ‘Quantifying Tone Deafness in the General Population’ Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 1060: 255–261, which can be accessed here

Top left: ‘Loud noise’ By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Middle right: Frequency sketches, by Victoria Punch

Mozart and the Brain?

Mozart and the Brain?

There’s always been debate on whether classical music increases IQ. But is there any scientific basis for this idea?  A TED talk on Music and the Brain, by Jessica Grahn*, discusses this issue. She starts the story in 1993, when there was a craze for playing Mozart to babies, to improve brain function and perform better in tests – which, it seemed, they did.
However, the original test results on college students turned out not to be due to Mozart’s genius being imparted, but due to the type of music being played. The key research had used a jumpy, springy, energetic piece that got the participants psyched and ready for the spatial tests they had to complete. The non-Mozart control groups had silence, or some chilled music played to them – much less invigorating!
 Time passed, and more scientists got involved and worked out that the improved results were linked to how the music made you feel. If it induced lethargy or relaxation you would perform less brilliantly than if it made you feel energised and happy.
So in summary, says Jessica, mood affects cognitive performance. There follows a list of the many amazing ways that music can impact life: it increases endurance while exercising, and reduces pain. It can aid stroke rehabilitation, release memories in dementia patients, and help those with Parkinson’s disease to walk.
Music can have a profound impact on our brains. What music makes you feel happy?
*You can watch it here.