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Language and Music
The Parallels Between Learning/Teaching Language and Learning/Teaching Music
by Mark Lowe
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(First published in Modern English Teacher - MET - Vol 16 no. 3)

A few million years ago, our distant ancestors chanted together. Gradually the chant divided into language and music as our species evolved. But music and language still have much in common: there are still deep parallels between them. Mark Lowe looks at some of these parallels.

Introduction

Many scientists interested in the origins of language believe that language and music evolved together. Here, for instance, is Charles Darwin:

We must suppose that the rhythm and cadences of oratory are derived from previously developed this, and … believe that musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language … (from ‘The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex’)

Here is Robbins Burling, in ‘The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved’:

We can imagine an early hominin with a single type of vocalization that was ancestral to both music and language. It would … have allowed close coordination among the participants. Then, after a united initial phase, vocalization would have split into 2 parts. The part carrying the emotional message would have developed a more regular beat and become music. The part that carried the more cognitive message would have turned into verbal language … . This scenario would account for the deep parallels that are still found between music and language.

The purposes of this article are: first, to explore these ‘deep parallels’ between language and music, and second, to propose classroom
procedures which make good use of these parallels.

Speech

Communicative language teaching recognizes the importance not only of lexis and syntax, but also of stress, intonation, rhythm and voice quality in conveying our message. Lexis and syntax are cognitive, but the other aspects of speech express feeling, and are intimately related to musical expression. Consider how David Attenborough introduces ‘Great Plains’, from the BBC’s stunning wildlife series –
‘Planet Earth’.

‘Immense distances … vast plains … and life in all these huge expanses … depends on one amazing plant … grass’.

Attenborough, with a skill honed by decades of experience, employs all the resources of the human voice to put his message across with matchless eloquence. He raises the volume and pitch of his voice to stress the important syllables (shown in bold type here), and he lowers the pitch of his voice to signal the end of an idea. He speaks with slow, measured rhythm. There are many musical parallels. One is in the way a musician articulates a melody: musicians increase the volume of their playing or singing as a melody moves towards a climax on the highest note, and they round off a melody with quiet repose. Another parallel is the use of rhythm to heighten the emotional impact of what we say, as expert orators demonstrate.

I find that applying principles of stress, rhythm and intonation derived from music greatly improves my students’ speech. Meaning becomes clear, speech sounds more natural, and we understand what our students say. Moreover, these skills not only help to make meaning clear: they also add new emotional dimensions to our students’ speech: colour, emotional involvement and range – and the ability to hold an audience. There is plenty of evidence that musical parallels can help our students to improve their speaking.

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