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Language and Music: The Not-So-Distant Cousins

November 26th, 2013

People who have worked in the language industry for a while, either as linguists or otherwise, may have noticed at some point a curious tendency: People who develop musical skills, whether through natural talent or training, are good at learning and speaking languages. But what about the other way around? Does learning a new language lend itself to greater musical abilities? And how do these two skills relate to each other in the first place?

A study published just this year took a close look at how speakers of Cantonese—a tonal language—compared with speakers of English in musical ability. The results showed that Cantonese-speaking non-musicians were much better at picking up and differentiating between musical tones than those who spoke English, a non-tonal language. Therefore, it appears that knowing or learning a tonal language can directly lead to enhanced musical skills.

But what does this mean for learners of other languages that aren’t tonal, like Spanish, Italian, or Farsi? Any speaker of these languages will tell you that although tones aren’t used in these languages to distinguished between words as in Cantonese or Thai, “intonation,” or the rising and falling of pitch does contribute greatly to meaning at the sentence level.

In spoken French, for instance, the difference between “tu travailles” (You work) and “tu travailles?” (Do you work?) is a heightened pitch on the last syllable of the sentence. Performing that task and recognizing it in the speech of others is essential in cross-cultural communication in nearly all languages. These skills help us differentiate between an affirmation, a question, an accusation, sarcasm, confusion, anger, impatience, and a wide variety of other emotions that are reflected in the way someone says something.

How do these linguistic skills apply in the world of music? The application is somewhat obvious in singing: Polyglots have learned to control the pitch of their voices and their diction in order to pronounce words correctly. Perhaps more importantly, they have learned to imitate; that is, they have learned how to listen closely to how someone else speaks, and they have applied those tonal patterns and pronunciations to their own speech. These skills are essential in singing both as a solo but also in ensemble performance and they are also very useful in playing instruments. All instruments, whether they be stringed, brass, or woodwind, require careful tuning throughout their range so that they are in key. When playing with others, these instruments must be tuned to each other, so that one doesn’t sound more sharp (higher) or more flat (lower) than the other instruments.

The skills acquired in learning how to tune and play these instruments come through practice in listening, and anyone who has become fluent in any language knows that sharply-tuned listening skills are key to proper pronunciation and imitating accents.

So now that you know this, if you’ve done the work becoming fluent in several languages, take advantage of your aural skills and take up singing, or learn a new instrument—you might be pleasantly surprised!

Sources:

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