Field of Science

New study shows that music and language depend on some of the same brain systems

Music and language depend on the some of the same neural substrates according to researchers at Georgetown University.

The quick summary is that the authors, Robbin Miranda and Michael Ullman of Georgetown University, found that memory for musical melodies uses the same part of the brain as memory for words, and that "rules" for music use the same part of the brain as rules (grammar) for language. In the case of this particular experiment, musical "rules" means following the key structure of a song.

Why is this interesting? To the extent that anything about the mind and brain is well understood, music is particularly not well understood. I suspect this is probably partly because it took a long time for anybody to figure out how to study it empirically. Language, on the other hand, is fairly well understood. That is, it's maybe like physics in the 1600s, whereas the study of music isn't even that advanced.

If researchers are able to tie aspects of music processing to parts of the brain that we already know something about, suddenly we know a whole lot more about music. That's one exciting outcome.

The other exciting outcome is that, as I said, language has been studied scientifically for some time. This means that psychologists and neuroscientists have a whole battery of empirical methods for probing different aspects of language. To the extent that music and language overlap, that same arsenal can be set loose on music.

This shouldn't be taken as implying that nobody else has ever studied the connection between language and music before. That's been going on for a long time. What's important here is that these aspects of music were tied to one of the most complete and best-specified models of how the brain understands and produces language -- the Declarative/Procedural model.

Unfortunately, the paper isn't yet available on the Ullman website, but you can read a press release here.

Full disclosure: I was working in the Ullman lab when Robbin joined as a graduate student. You can read about some of my research with Ullman here.

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