The Association Between Language and Music Processing

Language and Music in the Brain
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Exploring the effects of Music on speech production in the brain

Language is one major aspect that interacts with the human brain daily. It provides itself as a cognitive function to humans. Without language processing, humans would lose a sense of communication and understanding with each other. Language is composed of different levels of syntax, tones, and acoustic parameters. Thus, it is important to understand how the brain perceives language, where it is processed and how to enhance it. Strictly speaking, language processing today has been stated to involve brain regions such as the Broca’s and Wernicke’s area[1]. On the other hand, current research has suggested that music is one effective way to enhance certain language processing such as speech production. Music is much like language where it involves parameters such as intensity, pitch and frequency placed on each note. Moreover, music processing has similar brain region localization to those of language processing. In other words, the activation of brain regions when exposed to music may function to help when it comes to language processing. Therefore, it is crucial to underlie how music expertise may help to enhance language processing such as speech production using a comparative approach with music.

Language and the brain

Language is one important aspect that humans use to communicate among each other. It grows with the human brain from the start of birth to death. Language involves many complex structures such as levels of syntax, tones, and acoustic parameters[1]. In general, the human brain is the center of coordination for where linguistic activity is interpreted and processed. Language can come in different forms such as speech and tactile symbols. In addition, a specific language may be comprised of different ways of speaking them and each way is referred to as a dialect. However, individuals with brain lesions in language processing regions interpret and process language in an alternative matter. These individuals may not produce speech or may experience difficulties in writing language and therefore, they use hands and facial expression to produce gestures instead. This is known to be sign language. Nevertheless, with advancing technologies language interpretation and processing occur in specific regions of the human brain can be marked out and understood by scientist today.

Brain regions activated in Language Processing

The brain is the main region that allows for language processing occurrence. Language processing occurs in not just one but in a few brain regions. From the 19th century, neuroscientists have been researching in lesion brain areas that affect language processing and thus, specific brain regions became crucial for language processing. The main focus will involve more of speech production rather than written language. Strictly speaking, several areas such as the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area are activated during language processing. 


Broca's Area

In the mid 18th century, this area of the brain was named after a French physician, Pierre Paul Broca, who encountered two patients having impairments in language production. The inability to produce language is referred to as Broca’s aphasia. Pars opercularis and pars triangularis located in the inferior frontal gyrus today define Broca’s area[2]. In addition, Brodmann’s cytoarchitectonic map represents the two pars in the dominant hemispheres as areas 44 and 45 shown below.


In specific, Broca’s area is responsible for language production and comprehension[3]. Patients with lesions in this area experience poor grammar and slower speech production. In other words, these patients know what is being said to them but they cannot communicate fluently in return. Although patients with expressive aphasia know what they want to say, however, they experience problems in speaking it out. For instance, Leborgne who was one of Broca’s patients had the inability to produce neither words nor phrases. Interestingly, Leborgne was only able to say the word Tan and after his death, Broca discovered that Leborgne’s left frontal lobe was damaged. Another patient of Broca’s was named, Lelong. In Lelong’s case, he was only able to say yes, no, always, three, and lelo. Likewise, Broca also found lesions in the lateral frontal lobe. Therefore, Pierre Paul Broca concluded that speech production was somewhat localized in this region of the brain[2].

Wernicke's Area

Meanwhile Broca’s area is responsible for speech production; Wernicke’s area is also responsible for language processing. Carl Wernicke was a neurologist and his work involved brain injuries that led to aphasia. Strictly speaking, Wernicke’s aphasia is known today as patients who are able to produce speech but in a meaningless manner. In other words, patients may say many words but does not have any structural meaning to them. This area is also linked to the cerebral cortex. In addition, Wernicke’s area plays a role in the understanding of spoken and written comprehension[4].

Music and the Brain

As language, music is everywhere and interacts with each and every individual. Whether you’re in the subway listening to your MP3 player while waiting to reach a destination, or you’re humming a few notes while in the shower, music is interacting with the human brain. Likewise, music is also a complex process involving melody, harmony, intensity, frequency and rhythm. Unfortunately unlike language, music cannot provide answers to the past, present nor future questions. For instance, one may ask with the human language, “What is the weather today?” Sadly, it will be hard in receiving an appropriate answer by the use of music. Interestingly, people are born to process music likewise in processing language. However, certain brain regions may be activated depending on the interaction with music.

Brain regions activated in Music Processing

With today’s advancing technologies, scientist may use techniques such as Magnetoencephalography (MEG) to see that motor abilities are anatomically imprinted in the brain. For example, the motor cortex of violinist has larger left hand representation in comparison to non-musician[5]. In the case of a pianist, they have much more symmetry in the posterior precentral gyrus[6]. Most importantly, language processing regions such as the Broca’s area were found in musicians to be more developed compared to non-musicians[7]. Thus, the same brain regions activated for speech production are also activated in music processing[9][10].

Lexical Pitch Discrimination in French Musicians compared to Non-musicians


In the past decade, there exist many experiments between musicians and non-musicians. The major goal was to find out whether musical expertise had an effect on language processing or not. For instance, a recent study by Marie et al. 2010 shown above used a behavioral and ERPs measure approach to show whether French musicians were more sensitive to lexical pitch compared to non-musicians[8]. The language was done by using Mandarin Chinese words. In other words, two sequence of four monosyllabic words with either the same or different pitch (dóu/dōu) and words with same pitch but differ in one consonant (bán/zán) were presented to French musicians and non musicians[8] to detect whether there were differences. The results showed that musicians scored higher in picking up the differences in lexical pitch compared to non-musicians. In addition, this may suggest for neuroplasticity in these regions of the brain. Therefore, possessing early musical expertise experience can influence language processing and enhance it to some extent.


Therefore, language processing and music processing both are localized in similar brain regions. In addition, being able to be exposed to music in an earlier age may enhance areas in language processing such as speech production. Nevertheless, music and language processing both involve complicated levels of structures and parameters. Thus, it is crucial to understand the basic mechanisms behind language processing before exploring the relationship and contrast with music in the anatomical human brain.

1. M. Besson, J. Chobert, C. Marie. “Language and Music in the Musician Brain”. (2011): 617-634. WEB. 15 September 2011.
2. Wikipedia contributors. "Broca's area." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
3. Wikipedia contributors. "Language." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
4. Wikipedia contributors. "Wernicke's area." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
5. Elbert, T., C. Pantev, C. Wienbruch, B. Rockstroh, and E. Taub. 1995. Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science 270(5234). 305–7.
6. Hutchinson, S., L. H. L. Lee, N. Gaab, and G. Schlaug. 2003. Cerebellar volume: gender and musicianship effects. Cerebral Cortex 13. 943–9.
7. Vuust, P., A. Roepstorff, M. Wallentin, K. Mouridsen, and L. Ostergaard. 2006. It don’t mean a thing… Keeping the rhythm during polyrhythmic tension, activates language areas (BA47). Neuroimage 31(2). 832–41.
8. Marie, C., F. Delogu, G. Lampis, M. Olivetti Belardinelli, and M. Besson. forthcoming a. Influence of musical expertise on segmental and tonal processing in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Posted online on 14 October 2010. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21585.
9. Keenan, J. P., A. R. Halpern, V. Thangaraj, C. Chen, R. R. Edelman, and G. Schlaug. 2001. Absolute pitch and planum temporale. Neuroimage 14. 1402–8.
10. Maess, B., S. Koelsch, T. C. Gunter, and A. D. Friederici. 2001. Musical syntax is processed in broca’s area: an MEG study. Nature Neuroscience 4(5). 540–5.

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