Music and Language are processed by the Same Brain Systems
From Science Daily
September 28, 2007
Posted by Justine
Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have found evidence that the processing of music and language do indeed depend on some of the same brain systems. Their findings suggest that two different aspects of both music and language depend on the same two memory systems in the brain. One brain system, based in the temporal lobes, helps humans memorize information in both language and music— for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other system, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences, and the rules of harmony in music. The researchers enrolled 64 adults and used a technique called Event-Related Potentials, in which they measured the brain’s electrical activity using electrodes placed on the scalp. The subjects listened to 180 snippets of melodies. Half of the melodies were segments from tunes that most participants would know and the other half included original tunes composed by Miranda. Three versions of each well known and made up melody were created: melodies containing an in-key deviant note (which could only be detected if the melody was familiar, and therefore memorized); melodies that contained an out-of-key deviant note (which violated rules of harmony); and the original (control) melodies. The researchers examined the brain waves of the participants who listened to melodies in the different conditions, and found that violations of rules and memory in music corresponded to the two patterns of brain waves seen in previous studies of rule and memory violations in language. That is, in-key violations of familiar but not made up melodies led to a brain-wave pattern similar to one called “N400,” that has previously been found with violations of words such as, “I’ll have my coffee with milk and concrete”. Out-of-key violations of both familiar and novel melodies led to a brain-wave pattern over frontal lobe electrodes similar to patterns previously found for violations of rules in both language and music. Finally, out-of-key violations of familiar melodies also led to an “N400”-like pattern of brain activity, as expected because these are violations of memory as well as rules.
This is a very interesting article to read. When you think about it, it really makes a lot of sense that two aspects of music, rules and memorized melodies, depend on two different brain systems, which are the same brain systems that also underlie rules and memorized information in language. It makes so much sense due to the fact that the rules of music are so similar to the rules of language. Similarly in language and music they both comprise of gestures, rhythm, tone, dynamics, accents, question and answer and all the rules that make a phrase of music so enjoyable to our ears as well as what makes a sentence understandable. This is why language and music are so closely related that some even think of music as a language itself. I am wondering if the chosen melodies that were tested on the patients in this study, which normally are set with words, could have added to the connection of the same centres in the brain for music and language. So if they played familiar melodies that were never set to words would the same areas be triggered in the brain? Does this make sense? What I am trying to say is that maybe the “N400” brain-wave pattern that they found occurred in this study because the tunes had words associated to them, which means it wasn’t just the violations to the melody that caused this brain-wave pattern to happen.