Music and the Language Connection

Music penetrates deeply into the recesses of the soul, according to Plato. Similarly, language has been held by thinkers from Locke to Leibniz and Mill to Chomsky as a mirror or a window to the mind.

The two creative dimensions are facets of a single cognitive system. Under the brain’s hood, there seems to be is a fundamental computational operation, taking basic elements like words or simple sounds, combining them in a step-by-step manner and producing a larger structured object such as a flowing sentence or a melodious musical phrase. Lyrics are derived from language, yet it needs music as an accompaniment.

This is all just in the mind, but needs to happen before language is “externalised” as speech or writing and music is expressed through performance or by the simple act of tapping your foot to a rhythm. Do you see the relationship?

Well, there is evidence that linguistic and musical processing engages similar cognitive resources. Coupled with the formal similarities, there seems to be strong evidence that a significant part of what is called Universal Grammar (the initial state of the innate language faculty), also underlies the music faculty. The strongest and boldest hypothesis is that, apart from their basic building blocks, language and music are, in fact, identical.

Given what is known about brain plasticity and changes in synaptic and neural pathways as a response to practising something throughout a person’s lifetime, it’s not surprising that the greater use of language will show up in musical ability and vice versa.

Where does this take us in education? In Finland where I travelled to, music is very much a large part of their culture. Finland’s peculiar custom of early music training where even babies and toddlers learn core music skills through songs and games, have also also influenced the fluency of Finns. There, music training boosts all the language-related networks in the brain. So, you will be delighted to discover that children who start studying music before the age of seven develop bigger vocabularies, a better sense of grammar and a higher verbal IQ.

During these crucial years, the brain is at its most sensitive development phase, with 95% of the brain’s growth occurring now. Music training started during this period will boost the brain’s ability to process subtle differences between sounds and assist in the pronunciation of languages – and this gift lasts for life, as it has been found that adults who had musical training in childhood still retain this ability to learn languages quicker and more efficiently than adults who did not have early childhood music training.

We must not forget that our children often learn the most when they are engaging in free play and discovering the world for themselves; music provides a conducive backdrop to this possibility. With the ongoing pandemic, the future and its economic demands may be uncertain. Amidst all the pressure on young parents during these turbulent times, one thing is certain: in order for our children to thrive, we can do more while not imposing much pressure. The brain takes care of its own development, with a little bit of music… and a lot of free play.

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