Explainer: How are Learning Languages and Music Linked?

George Tsoulas, University of York

Music is what penetrates most deeply into the recesses of the soul, according to Plato. Language has been held by thinkers from Locke to Leibniz and Mill to Chomsky as a mirror or a window to the mind. As American psychologist Aniruddh Pattel writes:
“Language and music define us as humans”.

The two are facets of a single cognitive system. Under the brain’s hood there is a simple 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.

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.

But there are further questions to ask about the relationship between music and language, such as whether musical education and expertise influence our way with language or if it makes us better learners of a second or third language. On the other side, it would be great to know if fluency in more than one language makes it easier for us to learn an instrument. And if people who are bilingual, trilingual or quadrilingual listen to music in a different way.

Benefits of bilingualism

Several studies have shown that both bilingualism and musical training and practice appear to protect people against the onset of dementia and other cognitive decline in later life. As Canadian psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Anne-Marie DePape pointed out in a 2009 article, the mechanisms responsible for these effects are rather poorly understood, more so in music than in language. But they do point at some interesting possibilities.

Several of the studies reviewed in a 2011 paper by Finnish music and education researcher Riia Milovanov and her colleagues, showed that mastery of more than one language as well as mastery of music involves higher levels of executive control. These are the mechanisms responsible for overall management of cognitive resources and processes – including attention shifts, working memory, reasoning, and switching between tasks.

Less daunting if you play piano?
Foreign languages via f9photos/Shutterstock

Other studies reviewed in the same article showed that musical training correlates with better language-learning skills. Learners with a musical background were found to be better at pronouncing the sounds of a second language and at perceiving the relevant contrasts between sounds in that new language.