Talking loud and clear

How are music and language related?

Music and language have much in common. Both depend upon the brain’s perception of structured sound input. Links between the two were noted by the ancient Greeks, and Charles Darwin speculated about how they might be related. During the 20th century, attention focused mainly on their differences, with the idea that the brain had specific ‘modules’ for decoding music, distinct from those that handled language.

In reality, the lines between language and music are not always clear cut. ‘Talking drums’, used to send messages in parts of Africa, and the whistling languages of Africa, Asia and South America resemble music but convey information as ‘normal’ languages do. Baby talk (the cooing intonation of ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’) also blurs the boundaries.

Similarly, the idea that there are separate music-processing areas in the brain has been challenged. Localised brain damage can affect specific aspects of music perception, but often disrupts both music and language. An emerging idea is that there are brain networks and areas for music that overlap with, but are not identical to, those used in language.

So which came first? Did early humans chat or sing round the campfire? One possibility is that rhythm and early motherese-like communication provided a common foundation for both language and music. The two diverged as language became the principal tool of communication, with well-defined structures and rules. Music set off in a different direction. Yet their common ancestry lives on in the shared processing pathways in our brains.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development