Tag Archives: Language

Sight-reading and expectation

I recently took part in some interesting research in that intriguing Venn diagram intersection of music/language/psychology.

To ensure that the tests weren’t skewed by knowledge of what was being studied (so called Observer Effect) I simply followed instructions and asked later. Basically I sat at a piano keyboard prepared to sight-read various short musical samples for right hand only. My eyes were tracked so that the researcher could see exactly what I looked at and for how long.
One thing which became clear was that I looked down at my hands too often, even although there was a square on Middle C and a thin Blue Tack ridge on the G above that. The span of notes involved was a 13th ( from the G below Middle C to the E above the next C up).
Once it was all over, it was explained to me that the research was looking to see whether our eyes would linger over odd and incongruous moments the way they do when we read language. For example, “the cat sat on the sat” will, unless you are a modernist poet, make your eyes linger on the final word, which doesn’t, in any conventional sense really “fit”. Musical equivalents included, for example, an excerpt in the key of D in which the sharps which qualified it as ‘being in D’ were cancelled by natural signs. Interestingly, the weren’t many rhythmically weird moments – probably because that would have made the reading tricky. What was being sought was our reaction to oddness – not difficulty.
When I find out more about the results I will ( with the blessing of the researcher) post more.

Bilingualism – and also music…

I’ve always felt somewhat cool towards the oft-quoted links between Music & Maths, feeling that Music has more in common with Language(s). As neuroscience reveals an equal amount of our intuitions to have been either true or misguided, I was pleased to see this article about some recent research led by Nina Kraus – one of the most engaging speakers at last June’s Music/Neuroscience conference hosted by Edinburgh University. It suggests that bilingualism – and music –  are advantageous when it comes to processing sound. Much of this comes to being able to block our distractions – increasingly necessary in our busy world.

Prosody Revisited

Tidying up at the end of a primary school day, I was delighted when two P5 girls helped out without being asked. For some reason, best known to themselves, they burst into an animated version of Two Little Dickie Birds. Then one suggested, “why don’t we play that song?” I replied,  “we could, but I’m wondering if it’s more of a poem than a song. If we took the words away, would there be any tune left for us to play?”  After a moment’s reflection, one said:

Da dada dada da,  dada dada da  –

Da da dada – ,  da da da 

Dada da dada – ,  dada da da

Da da dada – ,  da da da  –

The inflections in the voice were identical to the version with words.

So, what is the prosodic equivalent of the popular line, “I’m a poet and didn’t know it?”


I received a nice pingback on a recent post today on the Mind Over Music blog by Justin Yanowicz and Judy Crook. Having been in touch with Nina Krauss, the director of the work mentioned on my original post, and discovering that we will both be attending The Neurosciences and Music conference in June, today’s unexpected tie-in was further proof of the ease with which the internet can bring together those with a shared interest, connecting and amplifying learning.

What I liked in particular was their advice to delay cognitive ageing: “Speak several languages daily and keep playing your instrument.” Easier said than done or, as I like to say when pupils suggest insurmountability, “difficult, but not impossible.”

Leonard Bernstein

A post of John Connell‘s some time ago about polymaths encouraged me to wonder if I regarded anyone in such a light. I immediately thought of pianist, conductor, composer, linguist, educator, broadcaster Leonard Bernstein. Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon his appearance in Radio 4’s biographical programme Great Lives. He’d been chosen as this week’s subject by Charles Hazlewood – in many ways a similar character – who, within a few moments, described Bernstein as a polymath!

If you are interested in connections between music and language, I can think of no better place to explore than Bernstein’s Norton Lectures.

You can hear the programme here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010626p.


Having spent most of the week assessing P5 pupils before selecting for limited places on the guitar timetable, two things strike me:

  • How unusual it is to spend the week with a single age group and (hopefully) in language suitable to their age and stage. This aspect is thrown into sharp relief in the company of experienced primary teachers. I can’t help noticing the way they put things; the speed at which instructions are delivered and reworded to ensure comprehensive, unambiguous understanding.

  • The contrast between this and the P5-S6* age range we cover in a normal working week. There is no teacher training for instrumental instructors; no shadowing; no apprenticeship. It strikes me as unlikely that a young, newly qualified instructor should arrive with the heightened awareness of language levels necessary to navigate this wide age range already in place. In Service idea?

* string instruction begins in P4


Acquisitions and mergers

Buffeted by wind towards a parma-violet sky this morning, I reflected upon an environmental incongruity, as the Allemande from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G rang out from the harpsichord of Tom Koopman. Were I involved in a car share or public transport, this magic moment would not be happening.

A day’s teaching might normally have been sufficient to overwrite that memory had it not been for a particularly fascinating episode of Word of Mouth at 4:30 on Radio 4. Presenter Michael Rosen discussed:

Intrigued by both interviews, I did a little research at the end of my solo drive home, and was delighted to come across a huge (and freely available) body of work by Daniele Schön

I would be interested in finding research on the role of knowledge of a first instrument when learning a second. I think we’d all agree that in both music and language, learning two is not twice the work of one and that three is not thrice.

You can listen again until 16:30 on Tuesday 24th Dec.

Name that tune

One of my favourite games, called into play to allay the tedium of supermarket shopping, is to guess the origin of foreign languages before I’m near enough to hear the words. What’s this nonsense, I hear you read. But really, you can tell from the tunes. However this becomes more difficult when foreign nationals are speaking English, as the mixture of our words to their tunes tends to hide the traces. Try out your ear on this online spot the accent quiz.

Thanks to Omniglot for the link.