Music, Language, and the Brain

Aniruddh D. Patel

Oxford University Press 2008
A book review by Danny Yee © 2017
A broad-ranging survey of links between music and language, Music, Language, and the Brain centres neural foundations and underlying mechanisms but doesn't narrowly focus on them. Patel is himself a neuroscientist, but one who understands that looking directly at brains can only get one so far. He draws his evidence from an impressively broad range of disciplines, including cognitive psychology, musicology, linguistics and ethnomusicology, and relies relatively little on anatomical or imaging studies: there are as many references to gamelan, for example, as there are to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). (Patel largely restricts his scope to ordinary speech and instrumental music, but does touch on song.)

Patel writes for a scholarly audience but for non-specialists, assuming little technical knowledge of neuroscience, linguistics, or music. The explanatory material is perhaps more useful as a refresher than a genuine introduction, but does make the book at least broadly accessible to anyone with a basic science background. A kind of introductory chapter "Sound Elements" presents some fundamental concepts of music and language, looking at pitches and pitch intervals and timbres, at phonemes and formants and spectrograms, and suggesting "a substantial degree of overlap" in "the mechanisms that create and maintain learned sound categories".

The four central chapters, on "Rhythm", "Melody", "Syntax" and "Meaning", have similar structures. They look first at music and then at language as it pertains to music, surveying the relevant science (and musicology, and ethnography) but also looking at its history. This mostly consists of dry but succinct summaries.

"The third rhythmic factor proposed by Dauer is the influence of stress on vowel duration. In some languages, stress has a strong effect on the duration of a vowel in a syllable. For example, one recent measurement of spoken English finds that vowels in stressed syllables are about 60% longer than the same vowels in unstressed syllables (Greenberg, 2006). In contrast, studies of Spanish suggest that stress does not condition vowel duration to the same degree (Delattre, 1966).
Dauer suggested that languages ... differ in the above phonological features, with stress-timed languages using a broader range of syllable types, having a system of reduced vowels, and exhibiting a strong influence of stress on vowel duration. This nicely illustrates the perspective of speech rhythm as a product of phonology, rather than a causal principle (e.g., involving periodicity)."

This is followed by comparisons and evaluation of the evidence for links. Patel avoids speculation here and doesn't exaggerate the implications of findings, so there are no big claims or sweeping narratives. This may disappoint some, but there's still plenty of interest. As key links, Patel highlights nonperiodic aspects of rhythm, melodic statistics and melodic contour, neural resources for syntactic integration, and the expression and appraisal of emotion.

"A key idea is that linguistic rhythm is the product of a variety of interacting phonological phenomena, and not an organizing principle, unlike the case of music.
... Changing the focus of comparative work from periodic to non-periodic aspects of rhythm reveals numerous interesting connections between the domains, such as the reflection of speech timing patterns in music, and the influence of speech rhythms on nonlinguistic rhythmic grouping preferences. ... it seems clear that some of the key processes that extract rhythmic structure from complex acoustic signals are shared by music and language."

"despite important differences between the melodic systems of the two domains (such as the use of pitch interval categories, a regular beat, and a tonal center in musical melodies), there are numerous points of contact between musical and linguistic melody in terms of structure and processing. ... the statistics of pitch patterning in a composer's native language can be reflected in his or her instrumental music ... melodic contours in speech and music may be processed in an overlapping way in the brain"

"although musical and linguistic syntax have distinct and domain-specific syntactic representations, there is an overlap in the neural resources that serve to activate and integrate these representations during syntactic processing."

"many interesting topics for cross-domain research come to the fore, including 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"

A final chapter "Evolution" touches on language evolution but focuses on music, surveying the evidence for it being an adaptation rather than an incidental byproduct. Patel considers the evidence from genetics, animal behaviour, and infant development.

"Whether human bodies and brains have been shaped by natural selection for music is a topic of vigorous debate. ... I do not think enough evidence has accumulated to reject the null hypothesis. ... Music may be a human invention, but if so, it resembles the ability to make and control fire: It is something we invented that transforms human life."

Most of Music, Language, and the Brain summarises existing research and the current state of knowledge. It does connect findings from different disciplines and argue for a variety of music-language links, but it doesn't present any overarching thesis or have any narrative core. It will be most useful for students, or specialists exploring outside their disciplines, but may appeal to some general readers.

January 2017

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%T Music, Language, and the Brain
%A Patel, Aniruddh D.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2008
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199755301
%P 513pp