Do You Learn to Play a Musical Instrument Just Like You Learn Language?

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Do You Learn to Play a Musical Instrument Just Like You Learn Language?

Jim Windell

             Is there a connection between the language areas of the brain and music?

            Certainly Shinichi Suzuki, the man who developed the Suzuki method of learning to play a musical instrument, thought there was. When he was refining his Suzuki method after World War II, Suzuki drew his inspiration from what he knew about how children learn language. In general, he thought that through listening to language and then practicing talking, along with the loving encouragement of parents, children learned to speak their native language. He made the leap from language acquisition to music. He reasoned that if children could learn language this way, then they should be able to learn a musical instrument using the same principles.

            Researchers at the University of Tokyo say they have found evidence that Suzuki was right and that there is an association between the language areas of the brain and music.

            Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo and a keen musician himself, put together a team his team to explore common neurological aspects of music and language.

           “In the field of neuroscience, it is well established that there are areas of the brain that deal specifically with language, and even specialized regions that correspond to different parts of language processing such as grammar or syntax,” said Sakai about his study. “We wondered if training under the Suzuki method might lead to activity in such areas, not when using language, but when engaging with music.”

           To study this, Sakai and his team enlisted 98 Japanese secondary school students classified into three groups: Group S (Suzuki) was trained from a young age in the Suzuki method; Group E (Early) was musically trained from a young age but not in the Suzuki method; and Group L (Late) was either musically trained at a later age, but not in the Suzuki method, or were not musically trained at all. All the students had their brains scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which produced dynamic 3D models of their brains' activity. While their brains were being scanned, they listened to a musical exercise to identify errors in the music. The musical pieces the participants listened to had errors in one of four musical conditions: pitch, tempo, stress and articulation.

           It was found that groups S and E showed more overall brain activity than Group L, especially during the pitch and articulation conditions. Furthermore, groups S and E showed activity in very specific regions depending on the kind of error being tested for. Interestingly, Group S showed some unique patterns of activation mostly in areas of the right brain and during the tempo condition. That is the area of the brain associated with emotion and melody – thus, supporting the ideas behind the Suzuki method.

           Regarding the results, Sakai pointed out: “One striking observation was that regardless of musical experience, the highly specific grammar center in the left brain was activated during the articulation condition. This connection between music and language might explain why everyone can enjoy music even if they are not musical themselves.” He went on to add, “Other researchers, perhaps those studying neurological traits of artistic experts, may be able to build on what we've found here. As for ourselves, we wish to delve deeper into the connection between music and language by designing novel experiments to tease out more elusive details.”

           But for now, it seems confirmed that the language area of the brain plays a role in listening to – and likely learning to play – music.

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Kuniyoshi L Sakai, Yoshiaki Oshiba, Reiya Horisawa, Takeaki Miyamae, Ryugo Hayano. (2021). Music-Experience-Related and Musical-Error-Dependent Activations in the Brain. Cerebral Cortex. DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhab478


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