Review of Music, Language, and the Brain
|AUTHOR: Patel, Aniruddh D.
TITLE: Music, Language, and the Brain
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Gail Mingalone Vorsas, the Program in Literatures, Literacies & Linguistics of
the Comparative Studies Ph.D. program of Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.
The connection between music and language has been a subject of interest for
millennia, yet the exploration of this relationship from the perspective of
modern cognitive science has only recently begun. Traditionally, these two
complex systems of meaningful organized sound were thought to be distinct,
processed in discrete areas of the brain. However, new concepts and tools have
allowed the advancement of empirical research to challenge these suppositions,
as Aniruddh D. Patel demonstrates in this volume
This book is a comprehensive interdisciplinary syncretization of recent research
in the comparative study of music and language, and how each system is processed
by the brain. Patel maintains that there are valid reasons to believe that
spoken and musical sounds are treated differently by the brain; however, none of
the findings precludes the idea of there being shared mechanisms for the
learning of sound categories from both domains.
Going further, the author proposes that there are more cognitive and neural
similarities than differences between the two; and, not only do they share a
number of basic processing mechanisms, but the comparative study itself provides
a powerful way to explore these mechanisms.
Patel is the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the
Neuroscience Institute in San Diego. His work focuses on music and the brain,
with a primary area of interest being the relationship between music and
language, and on how the comparative study of these uniquely human abilities of
communication can shed light on their underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms.
This book is the first such study of music and language from the standpoint of
cognitive neuroscience. A musician as well as a neurobiologist, Patel has
conceived the work to be accessible to individuals with primary training in
either music or language studies, and intends for it to provide a framework for
the exploration of music-language relations from a cognitive perspective.
The book is organized around specific areas of comparison between the two
domains: sound elements (pitch and timbre), rhythm, melody, syntax, meaning, and
evolutionary developments - with each chapter dedicated to one area, and able
to stand on its own as a separate publication. Drawing on a vast number of
studies, Patel balances his explications between the cognition of music and
language and the connection between the two as they are processed by the brain.
Patel focuses on the comparison of Western music and languages, due to the
volume of studies available; however, he does utilize a number of illustrations
addressing music and language systems from throughout the world when needed for
edification. A helpful tool is the reference to the publisher's website, with
links to sound samples that illustrate some of his examples.
Patel sets up the structure of the book as well as the reasons for investigating
the relationship between music and language in Chapter 1, the introduction. He
posits that interest in this relationship is based on the notion that these two
systems hold central roles in our existence - they define us as humans. Both are
comprised of complex and meaningful sound sequences, and the mind performs
similar interpretive operations on both to create perceptually discrete elements
(i.e. words or chords) organized into hierarchical structures that convey rich
Each chapter is a discussion of the structural form of music and/or language as
relates to the topic of the chapter, followed by a discussion of key cognitive
links between music and language, providing empirical evidence and indicating
areas of future studies.
In Chapter 2, ''Sound Elements'' Patel points out that we come into a world of two
distinct sound systems - those of language and music - of the culture we are
born into. Linguistic sound elements include vowels, consonants, and pitch
contrasts of the native language, while musical sound elements include the
timbres and pitches of the culture's music. This chapter compares music and
speech in terms of the way they organize pitch and timbre. In both domains, the
mind interacts with one particular aspect of sound (pitch in music, timbre in
speech) to create a perceptually discretized system.
Patel puts forward the notion that our native sound system leaves an imprint on
our minds; learning a sound system leads to a mental framework of sound
categories for our native language or music. This accounts for why it can be
difficult to hear or produce certain sound distinctions in another language, and
why another culture's music may seem out of tune or irritating. We ''hear with an
accent'' (9) based on our native sound system.
One of Patel's goals for Chapter 3, ''Rhythm,'' is to equip researchers with
conceptual and empirical tools to explore the frontier between linguistic and
musical rhythm. To do this, there are two overarching issues to regard in this
context; the definition of rhythm and the notion of rhythm in speech.
First, he defines rhythm as the systematic patterning of sound in terms of
timing, accent, and grouping. Second, each language has a rhythm that is part of
its sonic structure, and an implicit knowledge of this rhythm is part of a
speaker's competence in the language.
Speech and music involve the systematic temporal, accentual, and phrasal
patterning of sound. One similarity between them is grouping structure; in both
domains elements, such as tones and words, are grouped into higher level units,
such as phrases. A key difference between them is temporal periodicity, which is
widespread in musical rhythm but lacking in speech rhythm.
Patel points out that much recent empirical research on speech rhythm is moving
toward the notion of the rhythm being based on how languages differ in the
temporal patterning of vowels, consonants, and syllables. A key idea that
motivates this research is that linguistic rhythm is the product of a variety of
interacting phonological phenomena, rather than an organizing principle - quite
unlike the case of music.
While these differences might seem to be enough to limit the possibility of
relationships between the domains to compare, Patel sees that by changing the
focus of comparative study from periodic to non-periodic aspects of rhythm,
numerous connections between the domains are revealed - specifically the
reflection of speech timing patterns in music, and the influence of speech
rhythms on nonlinguistic rhythmic grouping preferences.
Chapter 4, ''Melody,'' focuses on the aspect of speech melody known as intonation,
which Patel refers to as organized pitch patterns at the postlexical level.
Unlike lexical pitch contrasts that occur in tone languages and pitch accent
language, these patterns do not influence the semantic meaning of individual words.
Music's relation to linguistic intonation, that aspect of speech melody that
conveys structural (vs. affective) information, is also examined here. To allow
for comparative study, the author suggests a definition of melody that can be
applied to both domains; this would be an organized sequence of pitches that
conveys a rich variety of information to a listener.
Patel finds numerous points of contact between music and language in terms of
structure and processing. He cites the statistics of pitch patterning in a
composer's native language that can be reflected in his or her instrumental
music, and neuropsychological research indicating that melodic contours in
speech and music may be processed in an overlapping way in the brain, as two
more indicators that musical and spoken melody are more closely related than has
generally been believed.
Chapter 5, ''Syntax,'' is divided into three parts. The first provides background
on musical syntax, the second part discusses formal differences and similarities
between musical and linguistic syntax, and the final section discusses what
neuroscience has revealed about musical-linguistic syntactic relations in the brain.
Perhaps the most controversial area of comparative study of the two systems,
Patel attributes contemporary interest in the comparison of linguistic and
musical syntax to Leonard Bernstein's 1973 lecture series, ''The Unanswered
Question: Six Talks at Harvard''. The conductor's interest in the analysis of
musical structure and meaning found inspiration in Noam Chomsky's generative
linguistic theory, resulting in his attempt to analyze the grammar of Western
tonal music in a linguistic framework. While Bernstein's work was inconclusive,
his lectures were the impetus behind the organization of a 1974 seminar on music
and linguistics at MIT, from which emerged the team of musicologist Fred Lerdahl
and linguist Ray Jackendoff. Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983) became one of the
most influential books in music cognition.
In this chapter, Patel stresses that comparative research on musical and
linguistic syntax should be grounded in a solid understanding of the important
differences between the two systems, so as to avoid the traps of superficial
analogies, like those which caught earlier thinkers, such as Bernstein. His own
theory, the shared syntactic integration resource hypothesis, posits that
linguistic and musical syntactic representations are stored in distinct brain
networks, but there is overlap in the networks which provide neural resources
for the activation of stored syntactic representations (283).
In Chapter 6, ''Meaning,'' Patel quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss to describe the
paradoxical character of the relationship between linguistic and musical
meaning, music is ''the only language with the contradictory attributes of being
at once intelligible and untranslatable'' (Lévi-Strauss 1990, 18). While it is
possible to translate between any two languages, it is not realistic to think
that it is possible to preserve the original meaning when translating music into
language or even another culture's musical system. This then, begs the question,
how is it possible to compare meaning in these two disparate systems?
Patel offers an approach that allows for a comparative study of the two,
inspired by ethnomusicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez. That is, to view meaning as
existing when perception of an object or event brings something to mind other
than the object or event itself. This definition is one that can stimulate
systematic thinking about the variety of ways in which music can be meaningful,
which in turn refines the discussion of how musical and linguistic meaning are
similar or different.
Taking this perspective allows topics for cross-domain research such as the
expression and appraisal of emotion, the cognitive relations that make a
linguistic or musical discourse coherent, and the combination of linguistic and
musical meaning in song.
Chapter 7, ''Evolution'' addresses the phenomena of language and music from an
evolutionary perspective. The two main sections of this chapter address the
question of to what extent human bodies and brains have been shaped by natural
selection for both of these abilities, abilities that appear in only humans, and
in all cultures? (As to the assertion that whales and birds create songs, Patel
says that these are acoustic displays only; the animals don't make or appreciate
music the way humans do.)
Patel uses a null hypothesis to argue that there is enough evidence to support
that language has in fact been shaped by natural selection, while there is not
enough evidence to make the same claim about music; this however, is not a
settled issue. He then asks, ''If music is not an evolutionary adaptation, why is
While a number of studies have explored the question of innateness, Patel sees
the case for music-specific innate bias as weak. Rather, he suggests beat-based
rhythmic processing as an answer, and as an area of research he finds likely to
prove crucial to future debates over the evolutionary status of music.
In closing this chapter, Patel urges the reader to keep in mind that the notion
that something is either a product or biological adaptation or a frill is based
on a false dichotomy. He says that music may be a human invention, like fire,
but it is something we invented that transforms human life; it also has the
power to change the brain, and thereby change our own nature, an ability no
other species possesses.
Patel's book is a logically assembled comprehensive presentation of the work
that has and is being done in this relatively new field of inquiry. While some
of the examples are highly technical, Patel successfully connects research in
the fields of linguistics, cognitive science, music cognition, and neuroscience
into a clear text for the expert and non-specialist alike. In doing so, he
supports his enthusiasm for using music-language studies to bridge the current
divide between the sciences and the humanities, so as to foster interactions
that can generate new ideas and discoveries that neither side can accomplish alone.
Patel concludes that research known to date indicates that music and language
should be considered complex ''constellations of subprocesses, some of which are
shared, and others not'' (417). The purpose of this book is to show the value of
the comparison of the cognitive mechanisms of music and language, finding
similarities as well as differences, so as to improve our understanding of how
the mind assembles complex communicative abilities from elementary cognitive
processes. It is impossible to do justice here to the volume of information
contained within this work, so I will limit my remaining comments to Patel's
chapters on syntax and meaning.
Throughout, the discussion is contained within the realm of the relationship
between purely instrumental music and ordinary spoken language, so as to
discover to what extent the making and perceiving of instrumental music draws on
cognitive and neural mechanisms used in our everyday communication system. The
author chooses to eliminate poetry and vocal music, where music and language are
inextricably linked, so as to force a search for the hidden connections that
unify these different phenomena.
In 1973, the same year that saw Bernstein's ''Unanswered Question'',
ethnomusicologist John Blacking famously asked, ''How musical is man?'' In
studying the role of music in the lives of the Venda people of South Africa,
Blacking (1973: 10) asserts that music cannot exist unless humans possess a
''capacity for structural listening'' so as to distinguish it from noise. This
capacity he says, must be preceded by a perception of sonic order, whether
innate or learned.
Without the benefit of the cognitive studies that Patel has access to, Blacking
proffers that ''the musical styles current in a society will be best understood
as expressions of cognitive processes that may be observed to operate in the
formation of other structures'' (25). He gives the example of how in the musical
system of the Venda, ''rhythm distinguishes between song (u imba) from speech (u
amba), so that patterns of words that are recited to a regular meter are called
'songs''' (27). Referring to Chomsky's surface and deep meaning, Blacking argues
that musical structures are similar to linguistic structures, in that ignoring
deep structures can lead to confusion of meaning (23).
Patel notes that Lerdahl and Jackendoff adapted generative grammar for their
analysis of music, but they didn't focus on comparisons of linguistic and
musical syntax out of skepticism about making superficial analogies between the
two. Specifically, they point out the lack of musical equivalents for linguistic
parts of speech, and differences in the ways linguistic and musical ''syntactic
trees'' are constructed. For them though, the primary difference between the
domains is that music doesn't signify the way language does - individual
components of a piece of music don't correspond to a specific concept.
This is also problematic for philosopher Theodor Adorno (1993), who describes
music as similar to but not language. While they share the qualities of being
composed of organized sound occurring over a period of time, adhere to
syntactical structure, and have meaning, that meaning cannot be ''abstracted from
the music; it does not form a system of signs'' (410); and unlike language, music
isn't arbitrary. But just as it is the case that arbitrary signs have meaning in
a particular culture, to discuss meaning in music (Adorno is speaking about
Western absolute music) requires an understanding of the culture and time in
which it was written and in which it is heard.
Leon Botstein (1993) articulates another complication that can make a discussion
of the similarities and differences of the two difficult; ''recognition of the
intention of the composer or the 'meaning' of a work, can only be made through
language,'' and once we use words to speak about music, we have privileged
language as the ''benchmark against which music functions'' (367).
On the other hand, to speak of music in terms of its syntactical structure
allows the discussion of meaning gleaned through the perception of discrete
structural elements organized into sequences that result in establishing
internalized norms for the listener. According to Patel, the cognitive
significance of these norms is that they create expectations that influence how
the listener hears music. In addition to the structural principals, the study of
syntax also involves the ''implicit knowledge a listener uses to organize musical
sounds into coherent patterns'' (242).
Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983, 6) support this notion, explaining that music
structure ''consists of rhythmic and pitch organization, dynamic and timbral
differentiation, and motivic-thematic processes,'' but of key importance is a
specific structural description of a tonal piece, one that an experienced
listener infers in his hearing of it.
This inference is framed by Patel in terms of pragmatics - how the listener adds
contextual information to what is being heard. He applies Andrew Kehler's theory
of linguistic resemblance to music, as an example of what can be used in
language-music research: parallelism (similarity), contrast, and elaboration. He
adds to this Florian Wolf and Edward Gibson's notion of an annotative system for
coherence relations in text. Comprised of eight relations, six are regarded as
having musical parallels: similarity, contrast, elaboration, cause\effect,
violated expectation, and temporal sequences. Culturally specific, these
relations are what the listener brings to hearing music or language; they are
the foundation on which inference rests.
According to Patel, Kehler's theory is inspired by David Hume's 1748 _Enquiry
Concerning Human Understanding_, a philosophical investigation of ''connections
among ideas'' (336) that humans can appreciate. Those connections, as well as
whatever informs a listener's inference implies consciousness, and it is fitting
within the context of the goals of this book that computer scientist Kehler is
inspired by philosopher Hume. Likewise, a connection can be made to John
Searle's endorsement of the idea of a unified field model of consciousness.
Searle (2000, 574) suggests that rather than finding a consciousness for each of
the cognitive systems, ''we will find a single, unified conscious field
containing visual, auditory, and other aspects.''
The notion of connection rather than disparity is what Patel has shown us. In
connecting such a vast array of ideas to show the relationship of music and
language and the brain's cognitive abilities, he has created a book that will be
useful to readers from many diverse fields and interests, and much credit is due
him for this brilliantly engaging assemblage. The information is comprehensive
in scope, yet his conversational style - while frequently highly technical - is
accessible to his audience. He leaves few stones unturned, asks as many
questions as he provokes, and at all times reminds the reader that there is
still much research to be done to solve the mysteries of the relationship of
music, language and the brain.
Adorno, Theodor (Susan Gillespie, trans). 1993. ''Music, Language, and
Composition.'' _The Musical Quarterly_, 27.3: 401-414.
Blacking, John. 1973. _How Musical is Man?_ Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Botstein, Leon. 1993. ''Music and Language.'' _The Musical Quarterly_, 77.3: 367-372.
Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. 1983. _A Generative Theory of Tonal Music_.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1990. _The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science
of Mythology_. (J. Weightman & D. Weightman, Trans.). Chicago: University of
Searle, John. 2000. ''Consciousness.'' _Annual Review of Neuroscience_, 23: 557-578.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Gail Mingalone Vorsas is a student in the Program in Literatures, Literacies &
Linguistics of the Comparative Studies Ph.D. program of Florida Atlantic
University. Her interests lie in the relationship between language and music,
particularly in the comparative study of the development of both systems within
specific cultural contexts.