I have played music for as long as I can remember. Mostly I was taught to play by reading music and performing what was written, occasionally I would memorize a piece. But later in life I wanted to play different styles of music and found that without written notes in front of me, I felt like I didn’t “speak” music: it was like being able to recite Shakespeare but not have a conversation.
This experience really got me thinking, and ultimately sparked my interest in what is now my field of research: investigating the neuroscience behind speech, music and learning.
I taught an early childhood music class for a while and what struck me was that, although our culture doesn’t expect all children to be musicians, if you watch a room full of toddlers responding to music it’s hard not to be convinced that all children are musical in some way or other. While children are generally expected to develop language skills by a certain age, it’s unlikely you would take your child to the doctor because they couldn’t play Beethoven.
Many adults believe they can’t carry a tune or don’t have a musical bone in their body, yet only a tiny percentage of the population is actually tone deaf. I think most of the fears and doubts that adults have about their musical abilities come from lack of practice and/or lack of confidence, not from any kind of physiological impairment. With continued participation in musical activities, most children can learn to sing in tune and keep a beat by the age of seven.
This means that we live in a vast musical laboratory: most people have the basic capacity to play music, but some never do. Some people read music but don’t improvise, some learn by ear and never read a note, some never play the same thing twice, yet by all these disparate mechanisms, human beings are able to make music. By looking at some of these different ways of learning music, my thought was that we might gain useful insights into how we learn language, and into learning in general.
Although much of the neuroscience research looking at musicians has focused on classically trained players, there is increasing interest in improvisation and how this relates with spoken language function. A recent brain imaging study by Dr. Charles Limb’s lab at John’s Hopkins University in Maryland demonstrated that musical improvisation engages some of the same brain regions that are involved in processing language, specifically the areas that deal with linguistic structure and grammar.
Rhythm is a key component of improvisation and also an important bridge between music and language. One of the reasons I came to Northwestern was because of Dr. Ric Ashley, a professor in the Bienen School of Music who wrote about improvisation in the Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. Dr. Ashley’s research interests include musical communication and expressive performance, with a current project focused on funk drumming. As he stated in one conversation, “It’s all in the timing.”
This is true on so many levels when we’re thinking about communication: knowing whether someone said “dad” or “bad” boils down to timing differences in the sound waves of mere microseconds. Knowing when to take your turn in a conversation depends on complex timing cues, just like the interaction between highly skilled musicians. With daily conversation, we are barely aware of these subtleties until something goes wrong, like a delayed phone signal that makes both people keep trying to speak at once.
Research from my own lab and others has shown that even something as simple as tapping along to a beat relates with language skills including reading, with dyslexic children having much greater difficulty with rhythm than typically developing readers. By continuing to investigate these connections we may not only learn more about how the brain works, but also about how things go wrong, and ultimately how to fix them.
In the meantime, I’m still playing music, and I have now played probably more than a hundred shows with no written music in front of me. I still don’t feel like a great improviser and it’s certainly not Shakespeare, but it’s me: the conversation has begun!