Tag Archives: Darwin

Music & Language

For a musician, timing is everything – but it’s often not as much fun as serendipity. I emerged from the today’s post-work swim just in time to hear a piece on Radio 4’s PM on the links between music and language. This is one of the topics on the agenda of the American Association for the Advancement of Science‘s forthcoming conference.

You can hear the piece here (approx 5 mins long – scroll forward to 0:44:20) for the next seven days. There is mention (and sometimes demonstration) of:

  • how the enhanced audio/language processing skills in musicians are exactly those diminished in certain “clinical populations”
  • how the electrical activity in the brain mirrors much more exactly the patterns of music recently heard than would be possible in the case of speech – the corollary being that frequent, active exposure to music can strengthen language processing
  • how the eye contact necessary in some music therapy activities can strengthen the social skills of the most withdrawn
  • how a stroke patient, struggling to recall the content of an out-of-context lyric, seemed suddenly capable of total recall when asked to sing the same lyric
  • the differing opinions of Darwin, Spencer and Rousseau on whether music grew from language, language from music, or whether they emerged as co-dependants

Mirror Neurons

These few thoughts began as a reply to a comment of David Gilmour’s on a post. As is often the case, the search for one illustrative link unearthed enough to necessitate a discrete post. The initial aim had been simply to launch one more ingredient into the mix of reflections on literacy currently taking place in the profession. In essence, the question was which, if either, is more literate: reading fingerings off the page or reading the movements of a hand on a video?

Although an ardent fan of traditional musical literacy I’ve lately begun to wonder if pupils might benefit from a supplementary option – watching the hands in a close-up video performance of pieces they are preparing – specifically ensemble material, where the moves they are required to internalise account for only a fraction of the overall sound. Preliminary canvassing of a few pupils suggest that they feel that this might be helpful.

I began to wonder about the role that mirror neurons might play in this and, in my search, stumbled upon this explanatory video. In the year of Darwin’s bicentenary, the question would seem to be, “why look an evolutionary gift-horse in the mouth?”

This train of thought is something of a slow burner, as this letter to New Scientist about this article in Feb 2001 might suggest.