Song Sung Blue: In brain, music and language overlap

Music may be a balm for the soul and, in Shakespeare’s words, the food of love. It may also convey specific meaning much as language does, a new study suggests.

Different classical-music passages facilitate thinking about specific verbal categories, says a team of neuroscientists led by Stefan Koelsch of the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Carefully selected musical passages yield this effect for a wide range of nouns, from needle and cellar to wideness and blue, regardless of any emotional connotations in the words.

The phenomenon is akin to a purely linguistic one that Koelsch’s group and others have investigated with groups of volunteers. After hearing the sentence The boat floats on the lake, participants more quickly read and comprehended a related word, river, than an unrelated word, needle. This booster effect on the processing of words with related meanings is known as priming. Volunteers also displayed a split-second brain wave response that is characteristic of recognizing a word that has just been primed by a sentence.

The musical analog of priming showed up when Koelsch and his coworkers studied 122 German speakers, ages 19 to 52 years, who had never taken music lessons or learned to play any instrument. An initial experiment established that the volunteers consistently associated 44 nouns with particular musical passages that lasted roughly 10 seconds. Electrodes placed on the scalp recorded the brain’s electrical activity as each participant heard various musical passages or spoken sentences followed by presentation of different nouns.

“The brain handles musical and linguistic information very similarly,” Koelsch says. “Musical passages primed a surprising variety of nouns.”

Some music that primed concrete words mimicked relevant sounds, such as the chirpy trilling of flutes in a melody preceding the word bird. Other priming music portrayed the defining quality of the thing the word denotes, such as a piece featuring ascending pitch steps that was associated with staircase. Some passages used cultural references, such as a church anthem that primed devotion. It’s still unclear what characteristics of music primed abstract words, including illusion and reality, Koelsch says. (Musical passages used in his study can be heard online at

The new findings appear in the March Nature Neuroscience.

Koelsch regards the results of the study as consistent with the controversial theory that the comprehension of music evolved as the brain’s basic means for auditory communication and made possible the tonal modulations crucial to many languages, such as Chinese and Thai. Many linguists argue instead that language arose independently of music.

The evolutionary relationship of music and language, if one exists, remains a mystery, remarks neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego.

Still, Patel adds, Koelsch’s investigation “launches an interesting line of research into the overlap of music with language.” Patel’s own preliminary data suggest that damage to a brain region known as Broca’s area impairs not only comprehension of language but also recognition of harmonically related chords.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.