Musing on musico-linguistic linkage

This blog is broadly meant to provide some sort of reflective hinterland for my language work, but a recent spurt of recording and performing with the band in which I sometimes play has prompted me to think again about the links between language and music. It’s perhaps a bit of a diversion, but music has long been held to have a particular salience in relation to Gaelic language and culture, so it shouldn’t be irrelevant.

A Google search under “musico-linguistics” unearthed this article – – by Mihailo Antovic, which provides a summary of research trends and developments in this area in the past 30 to 40 years. To “summarise the summary” a number of folk have taken an interest in using a linguistic model of analysis as a template for investigating music. At a theoretical level there has been some progress in aligning language and music analysis in a broader cognitive science context. Neurological investigation has also identified areas of overlap.

Though I haven’t studied the field it makes sense to me that features common to both language and music, such as rhythm, stress, and contrastive pitch should have some common genesis. I can probably take or leave (though preferably leave…) the intricacies of the latest advances in Optimality Theory, but I am interested in how we learn both language and music, and whether/how progress in one can support progress in the other.

I suppose my questions and concerns from what I’ve read and/or thought about so far are twofold.

Firstly, if such a thing as a “Universal Grammar” of both language and music is conceivable, then on the music side of things it needs to be inclusive enough to embrace not just the Western classical tradition, which appears to have been the focus of early study in this field (for example by Bernstein), but all other strands of musical tradition across the world – perhaps begging the question of what we mean by the term “music”.

Secondly, again in relation to music, a unifying model must surely describe “musical competence” as it applies to the population at large, not just to individual perfomers and/or composers. If, by analogy with language, music is to be viewed as a natural feature of human behaviour which we all share to some degree or other, then a focus on the output of exceptional exponents risks missing the general point – probably by some distance. Particularly in relation to my own “applied” interest in music learning/teaching – and how that relates to language learning/teaching – it strikes me that Music Therapy approaches in particular, which explore/develop the musical in us all, may have something to offer.

The above are two pretty fundamental concerns at a theoretical/conceptual, maybe “rarefied”, level. In terms of practical application my general interest would be in how music activity and acquisition may influence/assist language activity and acquisition, and perhaps vice versa. And, given my location, I would take a particular, though not exclusive, interest in this field in relation to Gaelic maintenance and transfer. I guess that narrows the focus somewhat. To be continued?

About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 09/05/2008, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As I’m revisiting this, I’m thinking of people in Alberta who also have an interest in music and language and the connection between the two. Albeit Aboriginal languages and music, gospel, folk, and more besides. And I’m back to musing on the connections between language and music myself and regretting that I dont have the theoretical background in the same, but perhaps that’s an advantage at times, said tongue-in-cheek of course.
    There’s also the article by a colleague of mine, Andie Palmer: Teaching from Song: a recipe for preparation (University of British Columbia Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol. 9 July 2002: 287-292). Much here for me to think on and explore.

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