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Brain activity reveals connection between music and language

In a recent study, Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo and his colleagues set out to look at the effect of music on the human brain. Specifically, they wanted to look at the overlapping neurology of language acquisition and music. This idea was inspired by the Suzuki Method, a type of musical training based around natural language learning. 

“In the field of neuroscience, it is well established that there are areas of the brain that deal specifically with language, and even specialized regions that correspond to different parts of language processing such as grammar or syntax,” said Sakai.

“We wondered if training under the Suzuki method might lead to activity in such areas, not when using language, but when engaging with music. Our study reveals this is indeed the case.”

To investigate, Sakai and his colleagues gathered a study group of 98 Japanese secondary school students. The participants fell into three categories – those who were trained in music from an early age using the Suzuki method, those who were trained from an early age using a different method, and those who were trained late in life or not at all. 

The scientists scanned the subjects’ brains to create a model of their neurological activity. While being scanned, the groups were given musical compositions with errors to fix in one of four categories. The pieces had errors in pitch, tempo, stress or articulation. 

Interestingly, both of the groups trained from an early age showed similarities in brain activity. These students showed more overall neurological activity, as well as activity in specific parts of the brain, depending on the type of error in the music. 

Furthermore, participants who had been trained in the Suzuki Method showed unique activation of emotion and melody parts of the brain when working with tempo. 

“One striking observation was that regardless of musical experience, the highly specific grammar center in the left brain was activated during the articulation condition. This connection between music and language might explain why everyone can enjoy music even if they are not musical themselves,” explained Sakai.

“Other researchers, perhaps those studying neurological traits of artistic experts, may be able to build on what we’ve found here. As for ourselves, we wish to delve deeper into the connection between music and language by designing novel experiments to tease out more elusive details.”

The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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