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Music Isn't English, After All

March 12, 2016
Musicians hotly debate whether music came from language, or language comes from music. The answer might surprise you.


Founder & CEO | Sage Music

Music and the Brain

Excited to share a fascinating article from the NY Times with you! Reporter Natalie Angier has summarized a study done at MIT showing that the human brain has different structures for music and language.

This article has caused some debate among musicians and music educators about it’s implications for teaching music. My hope is that this study puts to bed an old chicken or the egg argument about we are musicians or linguists first. In other words; are we capable of music because we have language, or are we capable of language because we are musicians? The findings from the article are exciting in that they confirm that music isn’t english, after all.

Music Education

For some time, there have been several well-known music education methodologies which suggest that children should learn music like they learn language. That students should learn music initially by ear, and by avoiding notation just as they learn to speak. The most famous of these is the Suzuki Method. As an educator myself, I have much respect for the method’s founder Shin’ichi Suzuki.  His philosophy is full of virtue and noble intentions.  Here is a synopsis of his methods from the Suzuki wiki entry:

"The Suzuki Method was conceived in the mid-20th century by Shin’ichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist who desired to bring beauty to the lives of children in his country after the devastation of World War II. As a skilled violinist but a beginner at the German language who struggled to learn it, Suzuki noticed that children pick up their native language quickly, and even dialects adults consider “difficult” to learn are spoken with ease by people of 5 or 6 years. He reasoned that if children have the skill to acquire their native language, then they have the necessary ability to become proficient on a musical instrument. He pioneered the idea that pre-school age children could learn to play the violin if learning steps were small enough and if the instrument was scaled down to fit their body. He modeled his method, which he called “Talent Education” (才能教育 sainō kyōiku, after his theories of natural language acquisition. Suzuki believed that every child, if properly taught, was capable of a high level of musical achievement. He also made it clear that the goal of such musical education was to raise generations of children with “noble hearts” (as opposed to creating famous musical prodigies)."

I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.

What I admire most about Suzuki’s methods are his interest in finding a better way to learn and teach music. He aimed to do this by providing a positive and supportive environment, building up families, and teaching virtue and  well-being. I too share these goals. But since the time of Suzuki, we’ve discovered a great deal more about how we learn.  As such, we ought to strive to continually improve our methods of teaching as new information and research allows.

One such area that requires the most thought in light of this study by Nancy Kanwisher and John McDermott is the idea that music should be learned similarly to language. (It may also poke holes in the idea that music makes you better at language or math.) Suzuki reasoned as much, but there is no evidence to support it. Suzuki rightly noted that young children learn language much more easily around the age of 5-6. His observation is likely due to a process called neural pruning that completes by the age of 6 or 7, which was not known in Suzuki’s time.

When children are born, they have extra neurons in the brain just in case they need them. If they use them, they keep them. However, for any part of  brain that isn’t used or exercised before the age of 5-6, the body ‘prunes’ or removes the extra neurons.  After the pruning process completes, new neural connections have to be grown in order to learn something new. This is why adults learn more slowly than young children. So it is true, children learn language better at a young age, but they learn everything better at a young age, simply because they have all those extra neurons! That is what we call “experience expectant learning.” The body expects to learn, so it keeps around extra neurons just in case. Since young children learn everything better, it does not make sense to teach one subject exactly like another, especially if they use different areas of the brain.

In light of this study, Suzuki’s idea that music should be learned like language, however, now completely falls apart. The study showed that different sets of neurons were activated when subjects were listening to language, random sounds, or music. It is evident that the physical structures used in the brain to interpret these different types of sound are not the same. If these are discrete areas of the brain, then it stands to reason that exercising one will not improve the function of the other. A fun analogy to think about in relation to this is doing leg lifts trying to strengthen your arms. Not a winning strategy!

So let’s keep much of Suzuki’s philosophy, let’s build virtue and great citizens, but let’s also do the best we can to teach students to the best of our knowledge and abilities by improving our methodology when we are confronted with the evidence that demands it. Progress is exciting and we welcome it.

The Musical Chicken or The Lingual Egg

Music scientists, neuropsychologists, and other folks have often argued whether we are capable of music because we are capable of language or vice versa. It’s a topic that has been discussed by the likes of Robert Jourdain, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin.

You might have even had this debate if you’ve ever found yourself at a party full of music enthusiasts or academics.  I have debated this issue at music parties, too. Occupational hazard of course.  

But now we are going to have to find another topic to debate with strangers at parties – as we’ve seen above, music isn’t language because they are processed in different parts of the brain.  So let’s assume music is the chicken. If so, then language might be the egg, but it’s a quail egg. They might be related, but they aren’t the same species.

Now for the hard question:  What we are going to debate at our next party?

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