The Connection Between Music and Language

By: Cheryl

Written by: Ashley Tulio, Communication Specialist

I am someone who loves music and listens to it all the time. I enjoy various genres: from jazz, rock, country, blues, hip-hop, to classical, baroque, Motown, and others! Music is special to me as it has gotten me through many hardships and kept me sane during the social isolation that followed COVID-19. Music has always had a way of speaking to me: whether it is by helping me concentrate on a challenging task, or by motivating me at the gym, or helping me unwind by singing in the shower, or while doing homework or simply by helping me cope/understand certain situations I am experiencing. Interestingly, the music I listen to isn’t just in my first language, English, but in other languages as well, including Japanese, French, Spanish, Russian, and Korean: many of which I do not even speak! Whether it is through the words or the sounds, I, like so many others, always find a way to connect to songs.

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”

A 2019 Harvard University study, Universality and Diversity in Human Song, reported that research shows that music carries unique codes and patterns that are universally understood. In order to carry out the research, the team examined ethnographic data and gathered a century’s worth of music across 315 different cultures. After analyzing a song’s features, including tonality, ornamentation, and tempo, individuals could understand its meaning, regardless of the cultural background. The study concluded that “Music is in fact universal, [as] it exists in every society (both with and without words), carries more within than between societies, regularly supports certain types of behaviour, and has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners.”

One does not need to know what language a song is being performed in to understand the message of the song or the feeling that the artist or artists are trying to convey−which is an awe-inspiring and powerful fact! Music transcends borders and cultural barriers. It allows people to connect without having to communicate directly.

Music and Language

Human culture has numerous musical and linguistic systems that vary widely from each other. Yet music and language have similarities regarding features as well. Languages, for instance, have melodies, which linguists call prosody. Elements of music like pitch, rhythm, and tempo convey emotion within speech. In situations where we do not understand other languages, individuals can still understand the shifting emotional states of the speakers. Furthermore, compared to language, music has rules for ordering elements, including notes, chords, and intervals, transforming them into complex structures that convey emotional meaning. Due to the similar features that music and language share, many of the brain areas that process language also process music.

The Benefits of Listening to Music

Music has the power to improve our physical, mental, and emotional health:

  1. Physical: Music can alter one’s physical state, including breathing/heart rate and blood pressure, depending on the music’s intensity and tempo!
  2. Mental: Listening to music engages the brain, which leads to better learning. It can also have a positive effect on one’s ability to memorize certain things. Neurological researchers have also discovered that listening to music triggers release of neurochemicals that play a significant role in brain function and mental health!
  3. Emotional Health: Music has the power to change moods, help individuals process their feelings, as well as regulate their emotions.

Overall, personally, music has changed my life for the better! Music has profound influence over humans and can be therapeutic, as indicated above. Music has connected humans for many years and still remains a powerful way of uniting people.