Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

duet

(Photo: drchrispinnock/Flickr)

Is Music a Language?

• February 26, 2014 • 11:43 AM

(Photo: drchrispinnock/Flickr)

If not, why can we use it to communicate?

Listen to a few minutes of John Coltrane and Stan Getz trading saxophone licks, and there’s no denying that music is a form of conversation: The two jazz legends riff on each other’s melodies and build to a cat-and-mouse climax that is basically the musical equivalent of Shakespearean repartee.

But how the brain processes musical discourse is not well-understood. Is music a language? If not, how can we still use it to communicate?

At Johns Hopkins University, a team of researchers recently came up with a way to study the neurological basis of musical exchange by watching the brain activity of jazz improvisors. In one way, they found, music is exactly like language, but in another, it’s not similar at all.

Because our brains don’t discriminate between music and language structurally, we may in fact understand the structures of all forms of communication in the same way.

The musicians, 11 male pianists, had to put up with a little less comfort than they’re accustomed to on the stage of a hip club. Each slid supine into an MRI machine with a custom built all-plastic keyboard on his lap and a pair of mirrors arranged overhead for him to see the keys. For 10 minutes, he was asked to jam with another musician in the room by trading fours—swapping solos every four bars of the beat—as the MRI machine recorded the sparks flying in their heads.

The results took a big step toward describing the complexity of music’s relationship to language. During the improvisations, the syntactic areas of players’ brains—that is, the areas that interpret the structure of sentences—were super active, as if the two players were speaking to each other. Meanwhile, the semantic areas of their brains—the parts that process language’s meaning—totally shut down. The brain regions that respond to musical and spoken conversation overlapped, in other words, but were not entirely the same.

This distinction has two big implications. First, because our brains don’t discriminate between music and language structurally, we may in fact understand the structures of all forms of communication in the same way. Secondly, the way we understand the actual meaning of a conversation, though—the message its lines deliver to us—appears to depend on the medium of communication.

“Meaning in music is fundamentally context-specific and imprecise, thereby differing wholly from meaning in natural language,” writes Charles Limb, the study’s lead author (who’s also an accomplished musician; check out his TED talk on the the science of improvisation). “This study underscores the need for a broader definition of musical semantics,” he concludes later.

Music is not a language, but it certainly doesn’t lack meaning, the study shows. We rely on something beyond language to fully comprehend it.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.