Your Brains Aren’t Made of Cement! Or, How Music and Language Skills Interconnect

Nah, I’m not talking about listening to music in foreign languages, although that’s pretty swell, too. I want to talk a little about how I think musical knowledge and linguistic knowledge feed into each other.

To start off, I know that there are studies that indicate that individuals without musical knowledge can still hear differences between sounds in languages, and skilled musicians cannot necessarily distinguish between sounds in foreign languages unfamiliar to them. I was reading books like The Infinite Gift  and Finding Our Tongues, and I was getting a bit mad about the assumptions researchers make about language acquisition. I can’t cite to the exact study, and I kinda wish I could read it, because I’m not positive what they were trying to test. However, I have a feeling that the researchers were testing for some kind of innate ability among musicians or skilled polyglots that would immediately translate to skill in a tangentially related field.

I think music and language learning are connected because, if done seriously, both exercise the adult ear to distinguish between tiny, tiny changes between sounds. I personally think that it’s easier to gain this ability through music, but I think once you’ve trained your ear to notice the differences, you’re good to go!

Why do I think these crazy thoughts? Well, as I said, it makes me a little bit furious when I read all this crap about how adults do not have the brain plasticity that floppy little infants do. That infants can distinguish between all sounds, because they are filtering an overwhelming environment, and they have to pick out language from all that. That part may be true, but I don’t think for one second that the adult brain loses its ability to distinguish between tiny sound differences between languages. I think that, for ease of thought and for the sake of maintaining a sound mind, the adult brain filters out information that is no longer useful, so that we can carry on with our lives and do whatever we’re doing. When we can’t filter out information we want, we start heading towards neurological differences like autism, and all of the issues those folks face in learning to cope with our world.

But what if, as an adult with cement-for-brains, you decide that you don’t want to filter that information out? That you want it back?

Of course you can do it. You are a creature of will, godammit! Musicians use their ears in “supernatural” ways all the time.

You see, I also have an illustrious background in music, as well as in languages. Your accolades are much welcomed. I started playing piano at age eight, and started playing French horn at 11. I got sort of serious about piano at 12, and super serious about horn at about 14 or 15. My high school years concentrated on horn auditions for district/regional/state band/orchestra, and I spent two summers at rigorous music camps. My mother drove me two hours both ways every other Monday so that I could spend two hours with a strict Russian horn teacher. And then my father drove me all over the NE/Midwest United States so that I could audition at a whole slew of music conservatories. I got in, I attended a good conservatory for a year, and then I transferred out to study the greener pastures of anthropology. Ah, well, dreams die hard. (Just kidding, I didn’t really like music school.)

Anyways, you know what they teach you in music school? How to train your ear. They’ve got all them fancy music theory classes normal people don’t give a shit about, they’ve got ear training classes (hey, I was a tutor! In this class, a Russian professor plays a tune on the piano and you have to write down the musical notation. I was good at this.), they badger you about tuning in every rehearsal, every chamber group meeting.

Do you know why they harp (heh, music pun) on this? Because your adult brain filters out the bad tunings and every note that an orchestra plays so that you can concentrate on the whole. It’s actually quite helpful, what your brain does, but not in the context of becoming a professional musician. As a professional musician, it’s part of your job to hear when you’re a hair out of tune with the piano or your lead horn player, and it’s your job to adjust so that the audience has the best experience possible. It’s part of your training to learn to hear individual notes in orchestral pieces, so that you’re better at analyzing and playing that stuff when it comes up.

But as a listener, you don’t want any of these things, you just listen, and you’re done with it.

In fact, there’s another great example in the world of painting and color theory. When most children and adults start coloring and painting, they misinterpret colors they see all the time, because they’re just not looking for the right things. The grass is green, so, therefore, the shadow of the tree on the grass must also be green, albeit darker. I learned that water is blue when I was a child, so it must be blue, no matter how it actually looks to my eyes. Tree trunks are brown, pages of books are white, etc. etc. etc. But that’s not how colors work, and painters who master color are those who can notice how it works in the real world. And this is a learned skill– check out the book Color by Betty Edwards.

And you know what the fabulous thing is? You can learn all these things too! So why would it make any sense at all that your ear would never  be able to pick up teensy differences between vowels, consonants, and tones (jeez, tones hook right up with the music stuff) in your target language? That you should give up now, because all of those skills were lost when you hit puberty?

I’m going to sound a little egotistic here, but let me just say, that even before I took a French Phonetics class at university, I knew that the French “i” was different from the English “ee,” even sans diphthong. I knew that French people liked to aspirate after words ending in “i.” I knew that there was a difference between the “eh” sounds in “je volais,” and “j’ai volé.” I attribute this to my learned ability to distinguish sounds, rooted in my musical training. Now, producing those sounds is a different story, and sometimes it’s a matter of practice and experimentation until your mouth muscles adjust. But if you can distinguish the sounds, you can learn them.

Humans are capable of accomplishing so much with the faculties we have– and generally, we’re able to accomplish much more than the academic community tends to think is possible. So, if you want a native accent, or just better pronunciation, you have my permission to figure it out! Maybe learn an instrument in the meantime to give your ear some practice 🙂 But honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary. Like a lot of my other learning advice, input– namely listening— will get you there.


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