According to our Brains, Music May Be a Language

From a study by Nan Y, Knösche TR, Zysset S, and Friederici AD:

The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural basis of musical phrase boundary processing during the perception of music from native and non-native cultures. German musicians performed a cultural categorization task while listening to phrased Western (native) and Chinese (non-native) musical excerpts as well as modified versions of these, where the impression of phrasing has been reduced by removing the phrase boundary marking pause (henceforth called “unphrased”). Bilateral planum temporale was found to be associated with an increased difficulty of identifying phrase boundaries in unphrased Western melodies. A network involving frontal and parietal regions showed increased activation for the phrased condition with the orbital part of left inferior frontal gyrus presumably reflecting working memory aspects of the temporal integration between phrases, and the middle frontal gyrus and intraparietal sulcus probably reflecting attention processes. Areas more active in the culturally familiar, native (Western) condition included, in addition to the left planum temporale and right ventro-medial prefrontal cortex, mainly the bilateral motor regions. These latter results are interpreted in light of sensorimotor integration. Regions with increased signal for the unfamiliar, non-native music style (Chinese) included a right lateralized network of angular gyrus and the middle frontal gyrus, possibly reflecting higher demands on attention systems, and the right posterior insula suggesting higher loads on basic auditory processing.

When I was in school and had time for luxuries like discussions, we used to debate whether music was a language. I came down squarely on the side that it was: after all, it has a grammatical structure, a writing system with its own rules (and when I was learning it I made many spelling mistakes!), and many other similarities with language. It seems our brains might be on my side of the discussion, as well. In this study we see that many of the same areas of the brain involved in language processing are also involved in music processing–not just the auditory areas, but many of the same areas that are involved in decoding language. The same areas that are involved in processing non-Western (foreign) music may be the same as those used in processing a foreign language . . . . And that leads me to wonder–is there a deeper relationship between music and language than was previously suspected? If so, what do you think it might be? We know music can heal–can words? How would we know? Is there some truth to the old saying that music is the universal language? Maybe not one kind of music being a universal language, but a deeper correlation between say, the Platonic ideal of language and of music?

See the Neuroanatomy page for an explanation of what the various affected parts of the brain do.

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