Music and Language as a comparative field to study

Music and language are   integral parts of human activity. They are both  elements that define us as human beings as  existing  in all societies regardless of whether these societies have other cultural activities or not. These very human characteristics have led some people through time to believe that there must be a kind of connection between them.

Thus, a debate about whether or not there are common key elements began quite early in human history.  The issue attracted interest over time from a wide range of thinkers and scholars, including philosophers, biologists, poets, composers, linguists, and musicologists. Nowadays, the possible links between music and language still  intrigue scientists interested in the nature of these two cognitive fields, their evolution  and their representation in the brain.

According to Tecumseh Fitch ( resource 1), the comparative approach to music has at least three different aspects:  1) a cross-cultural comparison (e.g  comparative musicology and ethnomusicology)  2) the intraspecific comparison with other human cognitive functions, especially language (e.g cognitive musicology).  3) the interspecific comparison with the music of other species ( biology and its branches  such as  evolutionary biology ).  Some key points of these 3 aspects are illustrated below.

1. Ethnomusicology

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process, beyond a purely historical perspective.  They approach music within culture, music as culture, and as a reflection of culture. Many ethnomusicological studies share common methodological approaches incorporated in ethnographic fieldwork. Usually, researchers  travel to an area (or areas) of interest, they  interview people involved in the music culture and, often, they take on the role of a participant observer in learning to perform in a musical tradition. Often, they  also collect recordings and contextual information about the music of interest.

2. Cognitive Musicology

Cognitive musicology is a branch of cognitive science concerned with computationally modeling musical knowledge.  Cognitive musicologists’ goal  is to  understand both music and cognition. This interdisciplinary field investigates topics such as the parallels between language and music in the brain.

3. Biology

Biologists suggest that  both similarities and differences between music and language  are relevant to much of the work  on biology of music, especially when they are viewed from a perspective of animal communication systems.

So, it is obvious that scientists of several fields are working on music and  language comparatively.  Linguistics and Musicologists often focus on the differences between language and music, however  biologists find really attractive similarities. According to  Fitch, there are some deep similarities between human music and language and the their comparison  provides a  persistent recurrent theme in musicology. Of course,  music should be studied empirically as an independent cognitive  field.  It should not considered  to be parasitic  upon language, or derivative of language. However it seems that  the results of the empirical studies  of music will have  important  implications for language just as the study of language has already had a significant impact on the study of music cognition.

Fitch also indicates that  Similarities between  language and music can be found at three (3) levels.

1. At a Superficial level . For example, They  both use the  auditory/vocal domain  preferentially.  On the other hand,  each of them has closely related non vocal domains of expression (signed languages, instrumental music and dance). Both of them also can be notated or written successfully.

2. At a deeper, cognitive level, important  formal  similarities in musical and linguistic cognition can be found concerning phonology ( metrical phonology and rhythm).

Some definitions have to be explained at this point. In Wikipedia we find that   Phonology is a branch of linguistics concerned with the systematic organization of sounds in languages.  Metrical phonology is a theory of stress or linguistic prominence. Metrical phonology holds that stress is separate from pitch accent and has phonetic effects on the realization of syllables beyond their intonation, including effects on their duration and amplitude. The perceived stress of a syllable results from its position in the metrical tree and metrical grid for the phrase it appears in.

This deeper, cognitive level also includes  higher  organization levels. Particularly, hierarchical phrase structure exists in both music and language. What is meant by this is  that both linguistic and musical sentences can be analyzed into hierarchies of components. As Daniel Levitin indicates,  not all words are equally salient, and not all parts of a musical phrase hold equal status.  In regard with music,   groups of notes  form  small units;  these smaller units are combined into larger units, and ultimately into phrases; phrases are combined into structures such as verses and choruses or movements, and ultimately everything is strung together as a musical piece. On the other hand,  while searching in Wikipedia one can find that   In linguistic analysis, a phrase is a group of words or a single word that forms a constituent. By this element, phrase  functions as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. In grammatical hierarchy the phrase is lower than the clause (clause is the smallest grammatical unit that can express a complete proposition). A dependent clause is lower than a sentence. One or more sentences build a paragraph. One or more paragraphs build a text.

 3.As Fitch indicates, the most important Similarity is that  Music and language represent human universals. They are found in all cultures and  they seem both to rely on innate biological proclivities that are  quite unusual to the rest of animal kingdom. This biological basis is reflected a) in early biases and predispositions in infants (preference for processing relative rather than absolute peach , already observable at 6th month of age)

b) in a considerable overlap of brain regions involved in processing  music and language stimuli.

These similarities is rather unlikely to have been occurred from chance  suggesting that the study of language  biology and evolution will have very interesting implications about music evolution and vice versa.

This blog is my personal notebook concerning a comparative approach of music and language, which is  It is a field  I am trying  to understand .  Everything that might help  this effort  is very welcome.


1 Tecumseh Fitch , the Evolution of Music in Comparative Perspective

2 Aniruddh Patel, Music, language and the Brain

3 Daniel Levitin, Your Brain in music, page 154)







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