Language and Music Abilities: Parallels in Early Childhood

Careful observation of children’s musical development has shown that it is never too early for musical learning. Musical aptitude may actually begin in the womb. According to music psychologist Donald Hodges there may be specific genetic instructions in the brain that make the mind and body predisposed to be musical. “Just as we are born with the means to be linguistic, to learn the language of our culture, so we are born with the means to be responsive to the music of our culture.” Neuroscientists even have claimed evidence that “babies are wired for music from birth.” This “wiring” forms as the fetus responds to outside voices, music, and sounds from deep within the womb. These neurological mechanisms may also have an embedded relationship with language. However, contrary to the popular “Mozart effect,” there are no indications that furthering a fetus’s hearing abilities provides extra musical or cognitive benefits after birth.

Neuromusical research is a field that focuses on plastic changes in brain development that are directly related to critical windows that occur early in life. Children can learn more easily during these important time periods because of the plasticity of the young brain. As in second language learning, music learning is much easier when one is young. By providing rich musical experiences at an early age, children can become increasingly independent and able to create original songs and will naturally integrate music into their play.

The Musical Life of Infants
Infants respond to music in different ways than they respond to speech. In fact, infants respond more rhythmically to music than they do to speech. Infants not only seem to recognize specific rhythms and metrical structures they have heard before, but they also can coordinate their movements with the meter of the music. Infants can recognize patterns of pitches, as well as imitate exact pitches during exchanges with adults. In addition, infants imitate facial expressions while matching the frequency ranges of their caregivers’ voices. Infants also appear to develop strong biases for music of their native culture within the first year of life. When given a choice of songs, infants will turn toward music and exhibit pleasure toward the music that is most similar in tonality and rhythmic structure to songs they have heard before.

Protolanguage is a term that explains exchanges between infants and caregivers, combining musical and linguistic elements into one seamless form of communication. The term “musical babbling” has also been used to refer to infant-caregiver musical exchange. Musical babble is characterized by the use of both higher and wider pitch ranges, more expanded pitch contours, slower tempos, longer pauses, shorter phrases and less syllables as compared to normal adult language. Because the infant rewards these exchanges with smiles, sounds, coos, and eye contact, the caregiver is compelled to respond in return. This back and forth relationship has also been termed as “communicative musicality”. There are a variety of utterances and gestures performed in this music-like dialogue consisting of pulse, quality, and narrative. Transcriptions of these exchanges reveal specific patterns of timing, vocal timbre, and melodic gesture. Cultural anthropologist, Ellen Dissanayake, views these exchanges as “improvised duets of mothers and infants that are a natural performance in a type of temporal ritual which creates belonging and bonding”.

Is Music a Language?
Music is not technically a language, but music does have a type of cultural “vocabulary.” This vocabulary is built on an association between sounds and mental representations, which are in turn labeled with names. For instance in verbal language, “doggy,” (animal that barks with long tail) “kitty,” (smaller animal that meows) or “daddy,” (big man I love with a warm laugh) are labels for conceptual representations. Similarly, “fast,” “slow,” or “loud” are labels for conceptual representations of musical sounds. The formal study of music should not begin, therefore, until after this conceptualization stage is reached.

The relationship between music and language is quite complex. On one hand, both language and music share many of the same characteristics. Both music and language involve representational memory as well as the ability to combine representations by a system of rules and a social context for learning. In addition, music and language both use metrical stress and the processing of sound properties such as amplitude, frequency, duration, and timbre. Also, metrical stress, amplitude, frequency, duration, and timbre, as well as communicative sequences such as phrases, are processed in very similar ways. Pitch experience in either music or language is thought to be able to transfer from one domain to the other. Also, the shared properties between music and language appear to be universal and shared across cultures.

There is evidence to support the hypothesis that since music and language share many of the same properties, music learning helps with language development and vice versa. Engaging children in musical thinking activities has been shown to promote literacy development. This may be because music is a resource that trains the brain for any type of activity that needs “auditory fitness”. The common strengths between language and music can be used for teaching word recognition, comprehension, reading study skills, and literary comprehension. Both language and music training also appear to benefit executive control tasks. The implication for educators is that in order to enhance the learning of either or both, music and language activities should be closely related.

While there is still much more research that needs to be done with regard to the relationship between music and language, there are some things we can conclude. We know that music and language are both symbolic systems that communicate through sound. We also know that both language and music are important aspects of our evolutionary history and are deeply rooted in our biological nature and since music is influenced by culture and our biology, it should be no surprise why we enjoy music. Because of the many similarities between music and language acquisition in the early years, the purposeful guiding of music learning, alongside language learning, makes perfect sense. Given that music and language learning occur at the very beginning of life, both parents and teachers can work together to help foster musical and language development in young children. While music and language development split paths as a child grows, many of the same features of syntax remain. Musical literacy and language acquisition are natural ways for children to learn while interacting with others and should be actively encouraged both at home and in educational settings.