Fiveash, Anna and Kristen Pammer. “Music and Language: Do they draw on similar syntactic working memory resources?” Psychology of Music (2014), Vol. 42 (2), pp.190-209.
Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer state that “the cognitive processing similarities between music and language is an emerging field of study, with research finding evidence for shared processing pathways in the brain, especially in relation to syntax.” To test this concept, the authors undertook a research experiment, hypothesizing that there was to be shared processing costs when music and language concurrently accessed Syntactic Working Memory (SWM). Meaning, they predicted that the working memory would begin to falter if exposed to two kinds of stimuli simultaneously?
They recruited sixty-one participants at the Australian National University for the experiment, in order to determine whether syntax processing in the brain is the same for both music and language. Just as the English language has rules of grammar, there are similar concepts in music that combine different elements into an overriding structure. But would the performance of SWM be different between musicians and non-musicians? For this, they had 25 participants who classified themselves as musicians and 36 who were non-musicians. The thought was that “musicians are more sensitive to speech sounds, and that there is a transfer of training between music and language,” Besson, Chobert, and Marie (2011), so this would lead to a higher level of distraction for musicians, with less attention being placed to working memory.
The experiment was designed to incorporate a visually presented word list, and/or a complex sentence, paired with three music conditions: normal; syntactic manipulation (out-of-key chord); and a control condition with an instrument manipulation. For a completely random result, the 40 sets of music were re-randomized every eight participants “to ensure the results were related to the music condition rather than the difficulty of the word or sentence.” With syntactic manipulation, they believed that it would affect the memory to a point that the list of words, or sentences would become more difficult to recount thanks to their working memory being distorted.
A typical word list included: ‘sand, bat, light, pear, mole’
A complex sentence example was: ‘The host who the contestant offended ruined the show for the audience’.
The results were as predicted. The accuracy of recall was lower when the combination of music and language syntax were accessing the Syntactic Working Memory concurrently.
This is a topic that I have been intrigued with for a while, because on a personal front, at times I have found it difficult to listen to conversations when music is being played, especially if the harmonic balance is a little off. It affects both my Syntactic Working Memory, and my centre of focus. This is because the music seems to speak to me, as if it were indeed a language, thus taking my focus elsewhere. As I musician, I have also noticed how I am unable to study with music playing in the background, for I am pulled mentally in two directions. Therefore, it is quite easy to see why musicians’ accuracy was significantly affected in this experiment when charged with the task of remembering a sentence – much more so than the non-musician. So it would seem Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer got the answer they were looking for - that the processing mechanisms in the brain between music and language syntax are shared.
However, while I believe this to have been a good study, I feel it would have been great had it delved into the activations in the brain during the test. In the conclusion, the authors state: “while it is clear there appears to be a connection between music and language, this connection is multi-layered and is still being uncovered.” Had they left that sentence out and perhaps been able to go a step further, the experiment would be a little more complete. One thing that would have been of benefit to them would have been to complete a reading of the brain with the use of an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery), while administering the experiment. As it is understood, music shares several features/similarities with language, such as a syntax/harmony, the use of a vocabulary (words/chords and intervals), tonal properties (inflection/timbre), and a temporal clock (prosody/rhythm). Therefore, it’s not surprising that music activates the ‘language regions’ of the brain. The imaging would show that.
Also, the imaging would show how much the brain is activated while processing language and music. One would be able to notice that the major difference between the way music is processed, compared to language is that while language predominantly shows lateral activation, music processing shows bilateral activation.
Music and language: Do they draw on similar syntactic working memory resources? This was the original question of the study. After undertaking this experiment, the results of the authors would show that yes, they do! The research produces clear evidence of the effects to the Syntactic Working Memory, while including the comparison between musicians and non-musicians. Further to this, it is interesting to see that while musicians had the highest accuracy recall for word lists, it suffered significantly for sentences. Anna Fiveash and Kristen Pammer seem to think the better performance with words lists is because musicians have been shown to have “superior rehearsal mechanisms for verbal working memory.” But this doesn’t help when the words have been stringed together to form a sentence, because as discussed, music and language are processed together, and so the Syntactic Working Memory of the musician is significantly impaired.
Besson, M., Chobert, J., and Marie, C. “Transfer of training between music and speech: Common processing, attention, and memory.” Frontiers in Psychology (2011), 2, pp.1-12.