Says lead author Richard Kunert:
“The neural pathways for language and music share a crossroads. This has been shown in previous research, but these studies focused on the effect of simultaneous reading and listening on language processing. Until now, the effect of this multitasking on the neural processing of music has been predicted only in theory."
Kunert therefore asked his subjects to read several easy and difficult phrases while they listened to a short piece of music, which Kunert composed himself. Afterwards, he asked the subjects to judge the closure, i.e. the feeling of completeness, of a chord sequence: did it stop before the end, or had they heard the entire sequence from beginning to end?
Chord Sequence Task
This is an example of the tasks: ‘how ‘complete’ is this chord sequence?’. First play fragment 1 and then fragment 2. At the end of fragment 1, you have the feeling that the music is not ‘complete’ yet, it feels a bit weird.
Fragment 2 ends in a better way.
Fragment 3 is where it gets interesting: when you listen to this chord while reading an easy sentence (below), it seems more ‘complete’ than when you are reading a difficult sentence (below).
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | because | the | surgery | had | not | been | successful.
The | surgeon | consoled | the | man | and | the | woman | put | her | hand | on | his | forehead.
The experiment showed that the subjects judged the music to be less complete with grammatically difficult sentences than with simple sentences. The brain area that is the crossroads of music and language therefore has to do with grammar.
“Previously, researchers thought that when you read and listen at the same time, you do not have enough attention to do both tasks well. With music and language, it is not about general attention, but about activity in the area of the brain that is shared by music and language,” explains Kunert.
Language and Music
Language and music appear to be fundamentally more alike than you might think. A word in a sentence derives its meaning from the context.
The same applies to a tone in a chord sequence or a piece of music. Language and music share the same brain region to create order in both processes: arranging words in a sentence and arranging tones in a chord sequence.
Reading and listening at the same time overload the capacity of this brain region, known as Broca’s area, which is located somewhere under your left temple.
Previously, researchers demonstrated that children with musical training were better at language than children who did not learn to play an instrument. The results of Kunert and colleagues demonstrate that the direction of this positive effect probably does not matter.
Musical training enhances language skills, and language training probably enhances the neural processing of music in the same way. But engaging in language and music at the same time remains difficult for everyone – whether you are a professional guitar player or have no musical talent at all.
Richard Kunert, Roel M. Willems, Peter Hagoort Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention Royal Society Open Science, 2016; 3 (2): 150685 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150685