Schreiber Science

Aaron Bialer, Copy Editor

It is not new to hear someone claim that math or music is a foreign language.  In the same way that a student struggling under a stringent Common Core mathematical technique may claim he or she does not understand the mathematical language, an improvisational jazz musician may claim that he speaks a language that many of his peers do not fully understand.  Depending on one’s definition of language, the jazz musician may be correct in his claim.

Two studies were conducted by the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool that demonstrated the immediate and long-term effects of musical training on the brain using fMRI machines.

The first study compared the brains of musicians and non-musicians while they participated in a music-related task and a language task.  The musicians were found to have increased blood flow to the left side of their brain during both tasks; whereas, the non-musicians showed no brain activity correlation between the two activities.

The second study proved even more interesting.  After a half an hour of musical training, non-musicians developed a significant correlation between their brain activities during the two tasks.

People often claim that music seems to be its own language, so the correlation between language and music in the brains of those with a musical background should not seem so surprising.

In another study on this topic, the brain activity of improvisational jazz musicians was analyzed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at Johns Hopkins University while the musicians were “trading fours,” a phrase used to describe when musicians exchange back and forth melodies, typically four musical bars in length.   Musicians literally play off of each other’s ideas, repeating and changing other’s melodies.

The study showed that the regions of the brain that process syntax are not limited to processing language syntax but are active for general communication whether it be through language or music.  However, regions of the brain that process semantics, known as the angular gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus, become inactive during musical exchange.

In musical exchange, it appears that feelings and ideas are communicated syntactically rather than through the conventional notions of semantics and meaning that apply to language.

Furthermore, a 2013 study in Toronto suggested that music and language have bi-directional benefits.  In addition to music training significantly impacting language tasks, certain languages may allow speakers to more easily perceive music and learn music.  Specifically, non-musicians who spoke Cantonese, a tonal language based off six different pitches, showed similar performance to English-speaking musicians on music and cognitive behavioral tasks.

Music and language share various intriguing correlations.  Put down this newspaper.  Go learn Cantonese or buy a ukulele.  It’s a better use of your time.