Learning music changes how our brains process language, and vice-versa

Language and music seem to go hand-in-hand in the brain, according to new research. The team explains that music-related hobbies boost language skills by influencing how speech is processed in the brain. But flexing your language skills, by learning a new language, for example, also has an impact on how our brains process music, the authors explain.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

The research, carried out at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences, in cooperation with researchers from the Beijing Normal University (BNU) and the University of Turku, shows that there is a strong neurological link between language acquisition and music processing in humans. Although the findings are somewhat limited due to the participant sample used, the authors are confident that further research will confirm their validity on a global scale.

Ein, Zwei, Polizei

“The results demonstrated that both the music and the language programme had an impact on the neural processing of auditory signals,” says lead author Mari Tervaniemi, a Research Director at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences.

“A possible explanation for the finding is the language background of the children, as understanding Chinese, which is a tonal language, is largely based on the perception of pitch, which potentially equipped the study subjects with the ability to utilise precisely that trait when learning new things. That’s why attending the language training programme facilitated the early neural auditory processes more than the musical training.”

The team worked with Chinese elementary school pupils aged 8-11 whom they monitored, for the duration of one full school year. All of the participants were attending music training courses, or a similar programme to help them learn English. During this time, the authors measured and recorded the children’s brain responses to auditory stimuli, both before and after the conclusion of the school programmes. This was performed using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings; at the start, 120 children were investigated using EEG, with 80 of them being recorded again one year after the programme.

During the music training classes, pupils were taught to sing from both hand signs and sheet music and, obviously, practised singing quite a lot. Language training classes combined exercises for both spoken and written English, as it relied on a different orthography (writing system) compared to Chinese. Both were carried out in one-hour-long sessions twice a week, either after school or during school hours, throughout the school year. Around 20 pupils and two teachers attended these sessions at a time.

All in all, the team reports that pupils who underwent the English training programme showed enhanced processing of musical sounds in their brains, particularly in regards to pitch.

“To our surprise, the language program facilitated the children’s early auditory predictive brain processes significantly more than did the music program. This facilitation was most evident in pitch encoding when the experimental paradigm was musically relevant,” they explain.

The results support the hypothesis that music and language processing are closely related functions in the brain, at least as far as young brains are concerned. The authors explain that both music and language practice help modulate our brain’s ability to perceive sounds since they both rely heavily on sound — but that being said, we can’t yet say for sure whether these two have the exact same effect on the developing brain, or if they would influence it differently.

At the same time, the study used a relatively small sample size, and all participants belonged to the same cultural and linguistic background. Whether or not children who are native speakers of other languages would show the same effect is still debatable, and up for future research to determine.

The paper “Improved Auditory Function Caused by Music Versus Foreign Language Training at School Age: Is There a Difference?” has been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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