Saturday, April 28, 2007


Music and language

In late March I heard an item on WNYC about a study done at Northwestern University. Northwestern professor Nina Kraus was on the radio talking about the report, “Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns”, which was to be published in the April issue of Nature Neuroscience. From the press release:

The study, which will appear in the April issue of Nature Neuroscience, is the first to provide concrete evidence that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem's sensitivity to speech sounds. This finding has broad implications because it applies to sound encoding skills involved not only in music but also in language.

Since the article is behind a paywall and I don't have a subscription, I can't read the full report. But it appears to be only three pages anyway, and the supplementary information looks like it describes the details of the study well enough for me to comment on it, and on what was said in the press release and the radio interview.

The researchers took twenty subjects, some with musical training (defined as “having at least six years of continuous musical training starting at or before the age of 12, in addition to currently playing their instrument”), and some without (defined as “having no more than three years of musical training at any time in their life”). They had a native Mandarin speaker record the syllable “mi” with three tones — level, rising, and dipping — giving the syllable three different meanings in the Mandarin language. They had the subjects watch a videotape with an audio track, and they simultaneously played the different Mandarin syllables and measured the subjects' brain activity as they listened.

Their observations show that the musically trained subjects were more attuned to the tonality than those without training. They conclude from this that musical training specifically enables one's brain to process this information better, and that those changes might have significant implications in linguistic ability.

As much as I like that conclusion, I can't agree with it based on what I can see of this study.

  1. It's certainly no surprise that practice at listening to tones makes one more adept at distinguishing tones. The same is true for many things — practice at solving crosswords, or sudoku puzzles, makes one more adept at those. But assuming a connection to improved linguistic aptitude is a stretch.
  2. Even if the improvement does generalize, improved perception of Mandarin tones does not equate to any general ability in language. It might be a benefit for Chinese languages, but it doesn't say anything about the many other aspects of language, and there's no indication that it would help in any way for other languages (English, say, or French or Russian... or, indeed, nearly every other language) that are not tonal.
  3. Most importantly, they don't seem to have done much cause/effect analysis here. Maybe people who are already better at perceiving differences in tones are the ones who are more likely to pursue musical training. In fact, that seems intuitively quite likely. Why assume that it's the musical training that's created a more tonally adept brain?

These folks are clearly the experts in this field; I am not. Perhaps there's information I don't have that would support their conclusions. I don't see it from what I can read of their study. It's certainly worthfurther research, but that's all I would conclude at this point.


Maggie said...

Pretty much "what you said," Barry. Count on a lay publication to turn this into "blast Mozart at your babies so they'll get smarter," or some such nonsense. It's good that you're able to filter the bs!

It appears the authors are saying that both skills rely on a certain area of the brain and so learning one (Mandarin or pitch patterns) might enhance your ability with the other.

From the intro:
"These results not only implicate a common subcortical manifestation for two presumed cortical functions, but also a possible reciprocity of corticofugal speech and music tuning, providing neurophysiological explanations for musicians' higher language-learning ability."

From the conclusion, emphasis mine:
"Although the current study provides evidence for the positive effect of long-term music exposure on speech (linguistic pitch) encoding at the brainstem, especially given the significant correlation between brainstem pitch tracking and music experience (in terms of both age of onset and years of musical training), we acknowledge that genetic differences between our musician and nonmusician groups could potentially account for the results. Moreover, our conclusion is limited by the small set of stimuli (Mandarin tones) used. However, because we have now established a robust effect and observed the pervasive impact of musical training on our nervous system, we believe a new line of research has been opened up, which would naturally involve more comprehensive and systematic investigations of musicians' and nonmusicians' responses to different simple and complex sounds."

Selkie said...

I once watched a show exploring cognition in infants where a similar test was conducted on babies at several stages of development. The purpose of the research was to determine at what age neural pathways for language form. What they found was that even as newborns, children were able to perceive those subtle differences, and as they develop linguistic skills in their culture's language, their ability to detect them in other tongues diminishes greatly.

It's been pretty well established that exposing children to multiple languages at an early age results in an increased ability for them to learn new ones later. The results you describe suggest that to our brains, music is indeed a language.

So, yes, turn up the Mozart (and the Beatles, too!)

Barry Leiba said...

«So, yes, turn up the Mozart (and the Beatles, too!)»

Does Sepultura count?