Many scholars, teachers and musicians have argued over this simple question: “Is music a language?” It’s true that reading music notation can be compared to reading text. Many of us have similar emotional reactions to particular types of music, that’s why movie soundtracks are so effective.
The similarities between language and music are staggering. From stylistic nuances, diction and feel, and how we arrange music and language, the commonalities seem endless. Learning languages and music both require dedication, repetition, practice, and guidance from a passionate teacher.
So is Music a Language?
While technically music isn’t exactly a language, it is very language-like. In fact a study conducted at John Hopkins determined that speaking and playing music (specifically jazz improvisation) activated some of the same sections of the brain. The main difference is an important one. When the musicians played, the area of the brain that is typically associated with meaning did not activate. This means music can be used to communicate broad emotions and ideas, but the specifics are lost in the absence of text.
Similarities Between Language and Music
We process music and language similarly. The stylistic similarities stretch from how we play to how we listen and interpret. Feel, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and meter, are all characteristics of languages and also music. We arrange letters to make words and sentences, and sentences to make paragraphs and stories. Similarly, we arrange notes to make clusters and phrases, and phrases to make melodies and songs. Listening, call and response, and interpretation are all factors that influence languages and music.
According to Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 207, the five skills that underlie language acquisition that also apply to music are:
- phonological awareness
- speech-in-noise perception
- rhythm perception
- auditory working memory
- ability to learn sound patterns
Start Music Lessons Early
When you learned your native language, how did you do it? It’s hard to remember because we started learning as soon as we took that first breath. We begin by listening to the sounds around us. Then we experiment with our own voice by making babbling sounds. Eventually, we are able to say simple words whose meaning we would understand. Luckily, music is all around us. It’s on the radio in the car, the overhead speakers at the mall and grocery stores and it accompanies commercials and shows on TV. Inherently, children are exposed to music early on.
Learning multiple languages comes easier at a young age, and the same is true for learning music. So, start early and expose your child to a myriad of musical styles.
What Can You Do to Help Develop The Music Within Your Child?
In the same referenced study above, children randomly assigned to music training alongside reading training performed much better than those who received other forms of non-musical stimulation. Children involved in music lessons score 20% higher on test scores and report 10% higher IQ as adults. Getting started with music lessons is easy, and a great teacher can help accelerate your progress. While there are advantages to starting music at a young age, you are never too old to get started and the benefits are endless.
- Listen to many styles of music from classical to hip hop
- Dance while holding baby and rock rhythmically
- Sing to your baby (even if you think you can’t!)
- Clap to the beat
- Sing simple songs together
- Explore fast and slow speeds
- Identify high and low sounds
- Point out loud and soft sounds
- Enroll in a group music class
- Allow play on age appropriate instruments i.e. maracas, hand drums, xylophone
- Make up stories while listening to instrumental music
- Begin private music lessons
- Incorporate structured practice time
- Encourage improvisation and creativity
- Jam together as a family
- Attend concerts together and discuss them afterward (over ice cream or pizza!)
- Encourage self-expression through writing music
With Music Lessons, Practice Makes Perfect
As a parent or a teacher, you understand that it takes a few times (or a few hundred) in order for a child to master a new skill. Regardless of whether we are teaching them to say their ABC’s, tie their shoes, or play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano, kids learn best if things are broken down into bite-sized pieces.
Sometimes practice time becomes a battle and usually it’s because we forget to teach our kids and students how to practice. Good practice habits start at a young age and will often lead to good habits with homework and chores. They teach us that even if something doesn’t come to us instantly, it’s worth trying, and if you work at it, you just might surprise yourself!
Goals and Ideas for Effectively Practicing Music
- Daily practice (or at least every other day)
- Set reasonable time expectations based on the student’s age and attention span
- Play the hard part first
- Take it at a slower tempo (speed) to allow your brain more time to think
- Tap out the rhythm
- If you’re an instrumentalist, sing the melody before trying to play it
- If you’re a vocalist, sing the melody on a comfortable vowel before adding the text, or speak the text before trying to sing it
And remember to ask your music teacher for more ideas for music lesson goals, the list is truly endless!
With Music, It’s Not Just “What You Say”
We’ve all heard this modern proverb, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Once again, this does not merely apply to the way we communicate verbally through various languages. It is directly applicable to music as well. Any great musician will agree that there is a huge difference between playing technically and expressively. Both skills are very important and must be developed.
Often we see students who are being pushed very hard. We want them to play faster scales, more complicated etudes and larger works far beyond their level because our society has become obsessed with quantifiable goals. It doesn’t take long and the student becomes frustrated, disinterested and unsure of their abilities. Obviously, it is important to challenge children but it must be done in a measured and conservative manner consistent with the student’s current abilities and their desire to advance.
How then do we teach expressiveness? This can be a real challenge because in order to play expressively, one must have a certain level of technical skill. So, we must allow our students to play pieces that they can technically master. If they are struggling with fingerings, rhythms, articulations or even simple note-reading, they will struggle to play with any emotion, except perhaps anger and frustration! For most students, playing a piece they have mastered both technically and expressively brings the most enjoyment.
Find their favorites
To bring it full circle, do you recall having a favorite book when you were a young child? One that you would choose as a bedtime story almost every night? Did you have that book memorized to the point that you didn’t even need to look at the text on the page? Did you love to have the story read to you using all the voices? I bet your child does (or did) the same thing too. As musicians, we have that favorite piece. That song that we couldn’t forget if we tried. That piece that touches our soul to the core and the only way to explain it, is to perform it.
Start Learning The Language of Music Today
Music and languages share an incredible amount of similarities. Learning music can mirror learning a language in many ways. It takes time, practice, dedication and a great teacher to for a rewarding journey. Whether starting young or starting late, the best time to get started is when you make the decision to pursue it. As George Eliot once said, “it’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
While music and language have a lot in common, music allows us to feel on a different level without the confines of language context. One song can evoke very different emotions and feelings in different people. That is part of the beauty of music. Just like we listen and process music that elicit emotions, music can be learned and created to express emotions as well. Forbes Music is dedicated to helping you with your music learning journey. Get started today!
*This article has been updated on 01/19/2023 with new information.