Does music help us learn language?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the first steps to learning a language is figuring out where one word ends and the next one begins. Since fluent speakers don't generally pause between words, it can be a daunting task. We've discussed one of the ways people do it in this post -- they focus in on consonant sounds. Other researchers have found that we also focus on the statistical properties of language.

Certain syllables are likely to follow each other within individual words, but unlikely to follow each other between words. Take the phrase "between words." In English, within a single word we're much more likely to hear bet followed by ween than ween followed by wor.

Researchers have found that if you make up nonsense words like gimysi and mimosi and play a constant stream of these words to listeners, the listeners will eventually figure out the boundaries of the words based solely on the statistical properties of the words.

But still, it can take a long time to pick up the word boundaries. A team led by Daniele Schön invented just six words: gimysi, mimosi, pogysi, pymiso, sipygy, and sysipi, and after seven minutes of listening to these words repeated in random order, student volunteers couldn't distinguish between them. It took over 20 minutes for listeners to learn where one word started and the next one ended.

Schön's team suspected that singing the words might improve listeners' ability to parse them. After all, mothers often sing to their infants. Perhaps one purpose of singing is to help children learn language faster. In a second experiment, the researchers assigned a unique pitch to each of the syllables used in their six words (gi was C5, my was D5, and sy was F5, and so on). A speech synthesizer played back the words in a sing-song fashion, with a musical note assigned to each syllable.

After listening to the words for seven minutes, the volunteers were tested. They heard three-syllable "words" from the original list and partial words composed of fragments of real words (for example, mysimi, made from gimysi and mimosi). How accurate were listeners at identifying the original words? Here are the results:


The dotted line in each graph represents the average score for all listeners, and each square is the average score for an individual listener. As you can see, in the speech-only experiment, listeners did no better than chance. But in the second experiment, nearly everyone did better than chance, and the average score was 64 percent correct -- significantly better than chance performance. Simply associating each syllable with a musical note improved performance.

But in real songs, syllables aren't always matched with the same notes. Sometimes different syllables get the same note, and sometimes the same syllable is sung with a different note. In a third experiment, Schön's team allowed the notes to vary with each syllable. Again, listeners could identify words at a rate better than chance (though they weren't as good as in the second experiment).

Schön and her colleagues don't go so far as to argue that music is a requirement for learning language, but they do make the case that the extra information provided in music can facilitate language learning. They also suggest that other information, like gestures, might be equally helpful for learning a language.

But there is additional evidence suggesting that music plays an important role in language. Similar areas of the brain are activated when listening to or playing music and speaking or processing language. Language and music are both associated with emotions. And of course, we know that children -- especially small children -- really like music. This study offers another bit of evidence that the link between language and music may be a fundamental one.

D Schon, I Peretz, M Besson, M Boyer, R Kolinsky, S Moreno (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition Cognition, 106 (2), 975-983 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.005

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This is absolutely true. A Spanish professor I once had recommended listening to a bit of Spanish music (latin, salsa) during our day or while we were studying. Her theory was that each language "and" each culture or part of the world where that language is spoken has its own rhythm. This explains the difficulties in learning word boundaries when using nonsense words: You need an understanding and perhaps an appreciation of the culture behind the language which comes through very richly through music. I recommended to a friend, during his 2nd semester of German that he download some music auf Deutsch to facilitate his learning. This worked extremely well for him as it did for me for learning Spanish. It may be that "quantifying" our senses to accomodate something new facilitates a more thorough and stable/long-term memory of what it is we're trying to learn.

The intonation or "music" of a language is typically the easiest way for native speakers of a language to spot non-native speakers, too, because usually that "music" is a little off for the non-native speaker. A new language's intonation patterns are almost always the hardest part of the language to pick up, and are much more difficult than syntax and grammar, accent and vocabulary. So the particular music of our native language is probably wired in our brains earlier and tighter than most other parts of language and across more regions of the brain. Fascinating area for more research.

Asian languages have tonal inflections that make the language very colourful to listen to.
Take Mandarin, Cambodian, Thai, and Vietnamese, their language are full of tonal inflections, which is part of the language... and is quite musical. A China-born mandarin speaking friend explained that English wasn't so difficult to learn, it was just that he couldn't understand "emotion" of the word, as it did not exhibit much tonal inflections like Mandarin does.

Can I put in word for Esperanto?

Although it has become a living language - eight British MP's have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008 for example - but because it has great propaedeutic values. Esperanto also helps language learning!

You can check detail on

The appreciation of this study is enhanced by the various studies that have been done on the ancient practice of minstrel-singing. Most cultures have a special class of storytellers who often tell stories to the accompaniment of music. This process was studied in depth in the 1930s by a chap who went around Yugoslavia studying their minstrels, who still maintained an active lore. What they found was that the minstrels memorized huge and complex tales and repeated them with amazing fidelity -- and yet the actual wordings varied from telling to telling. The trick lay in the use of standard metrical formulae. It is likely that the Iliad and the Odyssey are written versions of an oral tradition long predating their being written down (rather like the Mabinogion). That's why they have so many repetitions of phrases like "wine-dark sea" -- they are perfect metrical square pegs to fit into square metrical holes.

So the association between language and music has continued to be an important element even in adults.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 21 Jun 2008 #permalink

As a professional choral singer, I can vouch for the strong connection between language and music.

One of my former directors is fond of saying that one purpose of setting words to music is "to make the words memorable." It certainly works for me. I can still remember the opening lines of a piece we sang in Aleut 15 years ago. There's no way I'd even begin to make sense of "Chalax alagum(p) qalan tin tu hyutal" otherwise!

Even in our native language, music is a great help in learning the words. It's the principle behind the Alphabet Song, for instance - even if some little kids think "ellemenopee" is a letter (or maybe a strange animal) at first :-) We've gotten a lot of mileage out of that tune, as when my 3-year-old son learned our phone number in preschool:

"I'll tell you my phone number:
5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5."

Many people find that their singing diction is better than their spoken diction. I can sing things in a foreign language even if I can't say them without "getting my tang all tungled up," as my mom used to say. I've found that singing has improved my spoken English diction as well, even to the point where a deaf friend once told me that I was one of the easiest people to lip-read she'd ever met.

It can also help people who have speech difficulties. Singer-songwriter Bill Withers has struggled all his life with a stuttering problem, but he never stutters when he sings. Once I heard him tell the story of a house fire that happened when he was very young. He ran to tell his grandmother about it, but couldn't get the words out until his grandmother said, "Sing it for me, Billy."

There's also plenty of evidence that the connection works in the opposite direction. Absolute or "perfect" pitch is said to be more common among speakers of inflected languages such as Chinese than in the general population.

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 21 Jun 2008 #permalink

This makes a great deal of sense. In the first pitch trial, by assigning specific pitches to specific syllables it would create a unique sequence of pitches to associate with a particular word--basically, an identifiable melody. I think this would provide an extra "start and stop" point for the subjects to latch onto.

I wonder, how was the rhythm handled in this study? It says a "constant stream of words," but was each syllable given an identical length of time or were any syllables subtly longer/slower than others?

I think it would have been interesting if they had added another dimension to the text by associating particular rhythms with particular syllables (e.g. one might be held for .08 seconds, another for .1, another for .2). This would create a quantitative stress for certain syllables, which presumably would have added yet more information to "latch onto."

It was an interesting study to learn of, though I sense that there must be more to it. I am fluent in three languages and I am studying a fourth - and I can make any music teacher (or similar) burst into tears simply by tapping my feet without any sense of rhytm or singing without any sense of melody. I am tone-deaf, in other words.

By Josephine (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

As someone learning Japanese on his own (very very slowly.. I sooo want to take a class!), I can tell you that my listening comprehension took a major jump upwards as soon as I started listening to some music, trying to pick out words, and using a dictionary to translate the song.

1)use of music, "melodic intonation therapy" is/was an approach to aphasia therapy
2)Melody and/or rhythm is often used to assist memorizing, say, math facts.
3)I think the tone and rythm part of music uses some part of the brain, and a different edge of memory, than language, i.e. phonology and semantic knowledge/memory, but is clearly essential in language.
3)people who are autistic or who have certain types of brain injuries may have monotone, monorhythm speech.
4) Stutterers commonly can sing fluently.
I can't make all these elements coalesce right now, but certainly language is more complex than we know.

Re Mandarin/ Cantonese and other inflected languages: listening to songs may actually make learning harder, as the music may cancel out or disguise the tone/ syllable pair that makes up a word! For instance, the Mandarin syllable 'shi' means different things at different tones, but music obscures the tone and one has to deduce the syllable's meaning from...yup, context.

I didn't read the paper, but I was wondering whether they control for the additional information provided by the musical key. One could imagine that the more information there is the easier it is for the brain to parse the words. For example, would coupling syllables with different color visual stimuli do the job?

The Vedas of ancient India are not written down (not until T H Griffith wrote down large parts of them in a translation effort in the 1800s) but transmitted through generations of oral, musical tradition. Much of India's poetry is sung to a tune, usually set to a mode, called a Raga in the Indian musical system. The raga system is interesting since it consists of a complete range of modes, with 72 basic modes (combinations of 7 basic sounds or "swaras"). These modes generate different emotions and the modes suitable to the purpose of a song are used in the song to add emotion to the lyrics of the song. It is a well acknowledged fact that music helps learn language - in a land of around 25 languages and 500 dialects, this observation is not far away from most people's minds.

I think it is an interesting approach. After I watched some really bad videos on YouTube about Genki songs I thought "What's the use of it. It's so annoying." Later that day I recognized that this song stuck in my head.
I am trying this approach on one of my websites for learning german now. Seems to be a really good method, though.

Although I did not read the article before, I'm listening to French songs to improve my French language skills.
I wrote a small application to organize the whole process of getting the lyrics and translating them (I guess that one is not very necessary ) , now it's much easier to listen to my favorite songs and learn.
It's free so you can just go and install it :) . If you like it or have any ideas for improvement , email me !

I have Asperger's. I am a musician, artist and writer. I could follow pictures before I could really read text. I learnt language largely through listening - I remember consciously learning language from speech rhythms and combinations of consonants and vowels, and most effective for me were the songs which my father always played on the record player. He had a vast collection of music, mainly vocal music, and my early development was wonderful thanks to music and visuals. If left to text alone, I don't think I would have come this far with my linguistic skills - I hated literature and grammar classes, always failed, but topped my class every year in language and writing. No wonder why now.

Just a perspective from the Asperger's side of things. This is an interesting topic of research indeed. Thanks!