Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Song: Musical and Linguistic Processing

Review: Janet Spring
Schön, D., Gordon, R., Besson, M. (2005). Musical and linguistic processing in song perception. Annals of New York Academy of Science, 1060: 71 – 85.

The investigation of the relationship between language and music until recently has been studied as two separate entities in the field of neurocognition: the study of language brain processes and the study of music brain processes. In the past decade, these two have been combined, for singing merges “both linguistic and musical information …. into one acoustic signal with two salient dimensions” (p. 71). Participants in singing studies have therefore provided researchers with important relationships between the linguistic and musical tasks. In the above study, Schön, Gordon and Besson (2005) review pertinent literature to date, discuss the findings related to the comparison of music and language processing. They also present the findings of three experiments they administered on “linguistic and musical processing in song perception” (p. 72).

Research has highlighted evidence that cognitive connections occurring between language and music in song are related and that linguistic and musical priming occurs in singing. Other studies that deal with harmony and semantics, (the study of the meanings of words, phrases and sentences) show that music and language is processed in different areas of the brain. “Results revealed that typical lateralization pattern of left-ear (right hemisphere)… for the melodic task and right-ear (left hemisphere)… for the phonological task” (p. 73). Due to the complexities of musical cognition however (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.), the relationship between language and music and the brain can take on many different cognitive dimensions. Therefore “song perception and production” studies shed some light in the relationship between language and music and brain functions and can prove or disprove their “interaction or independence” (p. 74).

In three experiments, the authors use MRI techniques to observe the brain stimuli in non-musicians when listening to three controlled conditions: words vs. noises, vocalizes vs. noises and sung words vs. noises. Results were projected onto a transparent brain image in three different planes demonstrating that there are areas in the brain involved in language, music and song processing that overlap. In the ERP study, the non musician participants were instructed to concentrate specifically on melody, then on the words. When being attentive to the melody the words would be irrelevant as similarly, being attentive to the words would make the melody irrelevant. Resulting data indicates that processing of the “relevant dimension seems influenced by the irrelevant dimension” concluding that “phonological/lexical processing and pitch processing cannot be processed independently”. In addition, the linguistic and musical aspects of a song are processed by “similar, overlapping brain areas” (p. 78). The authors then conclude that more research must be completed to examine the difference between non musicians’ and musicians’ processing of linguistic and musical aspects through song to uncover further similarities between these two important components.


I found this study interesting in that it highlights the importance between linguistics and music, and the interconnectedness of these in cognitive brain processes. As a strong literacy focus is mandated in all grade levels today, particularly at the elementary level, it would seem that the study of teaching literacy through music might provide educators with interesting data and results. Would it be that teaching language through spoken words and/or song may prove beneficial in raising literacy potentials and consequently those dreaded test results? What a novel idea it would be to teach literacy through music in the early formative years! Perhaps then educators would not be beating their heads against the wall as they are now, where students are ‘chained’ to their desks, with very little education in the Arts, as they produce language pieces that are somewhat below curriculum expectations! Only the research will lead the way!

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