The Link Between Studying Music and Learning Languages
7 reasons why learning to play an instrument at a young age helped me to become fluent in a foreign language
For a little over a year, I have been living in Munich, Germany. Every day I speak a langauge I didn’t grow up speaking and I use that language almost exclusively. Every time I meet someone new and the conversation inevitably leads to where I’m from (grew up in New Jersey, learned German on my own, moved to Germany, etc…), I’m met with shocked faces. “You’re joking!”, they say. “Your German is amazing! You grew up speaking it, right?”. Or they ask “How can you speak German without an accent?”.
After a year of hearing these questions, convinced that everyone wasn’t just being polite to me, I started to ask myself the same thing: Why is it that I, a native English speaker from New Jersey, can fool almost every native German speaker I talk to? Then, I came across an article about a study that was done which examined how learning music at a young age can help build the parts of the brain that process language
As music training boosts all the language-related networks in the brain, we would expect it to be beneficial in the acquisition of foreign languages, and this is what the studies have found. (source)
I started studying jazz guitar at age 7 and took private lessons for 15 years. If there was ever a reason why I was so good at learning a foreign language, this is it. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Here’s why:
1. Music teaches you how to listen
The most important part of playing any musical instrument, before you even use the instrument, is the ability to listen. Musicians have to be keenly aware of rhythm, melody, tonality, pitch, tempo, and lots of other things in order to properly play music. All of these musical aspects exist in language.
Example: Rhythm, the beat that carries a tune along is also what carries a sentence along. Properly pronouncing and emphasizing syllables in a language helps us communicate quickly and efficiently. If you say “wa-ter-me-lon” instead of “wa-ter-me-lon” you’ll probably confuse your listener (or become an internet sensation). If you start playing your rhythm on the down-beat when it should have been on the up-beat, you’ll also confuse your listener, making for unpleasant music.
2. Music teaches you how to focus
Every musician knows what it’s like to be “in the zone” when playing a difficult piece of music. You become so focused that it’s almost like an out-of-body experience where you are watching yourself play your instrument. It’s a result of deep concentration and hours of practice. You have to focus on current notes being played while thinking a few steps ahead to make sure the music keeps flowing.
This also occurs in language learners. They piece together complex grammar rules and vocabulary on the fly to turn a thought into a sentence as quickly as possible. Just like the complex piece of music, it takes lots of practice, a bit of intuition, and deep concentration to be able to do this. And because musicians tend to be perfectionists, they make sure to do it right.
3. Music teaches you how to imitate
When you start learning an instrument, you first learn other people’s songs. Only after reaching a certain skill level can you begin to write your own. You first have to imitate the experts until you can become one yourself. The same goes for language: we all learn little phrases at first. Then, we dive deeper into the grammar until we learn to make our own phrases. You could compare a German student learning a basic phrase like Hallo, guten Tag. Wie geht es Ihnen? to a beginner pianist learning how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb.
When you learn how to ‘reproduce’ songs from different musicians, you learn about different styles. From this, you develop your own style. In language, you often get exposed to various dialects, accents, and ways of speaking. After a while, these influences ultimately decide how you speak your foreign language.
4. Music teaches you how to pay attention
When musicians play a piece of music, a feedback loop starts in their brains. They continuously compare what they had expected to hear with what they actually did hear. They make small adjustments in their playing until the sound that was expected is exactly what is being produced.
When learning a second language, learners have to focus on the small nuances of speech and then reproduce those very specific and often unique sounds. Often, a lot of these sounds don’t exist in the learner’s native language, making it even more difficult. When this feedback loop doesn’t happen and those small adjustments are never made, the result is a foreign accent or a wrong pronunciation. When the feedback loop doesn’t happen in music, it can result in an out-of-tune instrument or a wrong note that goes unnoticed by the player. Interestingly, without the feedback loop, it’s not the musician or the speaker who notices these mistakes — it’s the listener.
5. Music teaches you how to improvise
Especially with jazz, improvisation is at the heart of the music. Being able to properly improvise shows that the musician has a deep understanding of the music being played and is able to play a spontaneous solo or melody that fits perfectly with the song. Most musicians find this terrifying at first, but after a while, being comfortable in an open-ended musical environment becomes empowering and breeds tons of confidence.
At first, language learners feel stifled to speak their second language. It’s embarrassing to make mistakes. For this reason, language learners often stick to very basic sentences. They also think hard about what they’re going to say before they say it and even rehearse it in their head. Getting over the hurdle of speaking the language “unprepared” is one of the biggest turning points in learning a foreign language.
But after a while, just like with musical improvisation, this confidence starts to build. You stop thinking about what you’re going to say before you say it. You know that you can walk into any room, be it a meeting room, a doctor’s office, or even a party, without needing to prepare what you are going to say. You realize you can now produce a complex string of thoughts on the fly without having to translate it in your head first. Similarly, musicians may realize they can improvise over multiple chord changes without having to map out the melody in advance.
6. Music IS a language
To be quite literal: You can read and write music the same way you can read and write sentences. The authors are the composers and the writers are the musicians. Music has a complex alphabet and rules that cannot be broken (you could call that the ‘grammar’ of music). You can’t put 5 beats in a 4/4 measure of music and you can’t use the wrong conjugation of a verb in a language (e.g. I is).
7. Music teaches you about persistence
Finally, the most influential lesson you can get from music might also be the simplest: practice makes perfect. Just like learning a language, you will never achieve greatness without practice and dedication. Learning to play Smoke on the Water or Wonderwall on the guitar will give you enough chops to show off at a party in the same way that learning a few phrases in French might impress your next date. To really learn something you have to go “all in” and leave no stone unturned. You have to sacrifice free time for practice time because you know it pays off.
Not only does music play a part in learning foreign languages, but languages also play a part in music. Learning another language opens the doors to the music of the country or countries who speak it. Being able to understand a song sung in another language is a wonderful experience. Music is also a great way to learn a language because it is easy to remember the lyrics to songs we enjoy listening to.
Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum
(Without music, life would be a mistake)
— Friedrich Nietzsche