How language changes the way you hear music

In a new paper I, together with Roel Willems and Peter Hagoort, show that music and language are tightly coupled in the brain. Get the gist in a 180 second youtube clip and then try out what my participants did.

The task my participants had to do might sound very abstract to you, so let me make it concrete. Listen to these two music pieces and tell me which one sounds ‘finished’:

I bet you thought the second one ended a bit in an odd way. How do you know? You use your implicit knowledge of harmonic relations in Western music for such a ‘finished judgement’. All we did in the paper was to see whether an aspect of language grammar (syntax) can influence your ability to hear these harmonic relations, as revealed by ‘finished judgements’. The music pieces we used for this sounded very similar to what you just heard:

It turns out that reading syntactically difficult sentences while hearing the music reduced the feeling that music pieces like this did actually end well. This indicated that processing language syntax draws on brain resources which are also responsible for music harmony.

Difficult syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman put her hand on his forehead.

Easy syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman because the operation had not been successful.

Curiously, sentences with a difficult meaning had no influence on the ‘finished judgements’.

Difficult meaning: The programmer let his mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Easy meaning: The programmer let his field mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Because only language syntax influenced ‘finished judgements’, we believe that music and language share a common syntax processor of some kind. This conclusion is in line with a number of other studies which I blogged about before.

What this paper adds is that we rule out an attentional link between music and language as the source of the effect. In other words, difficult syntax doesn’t simply distract you and thereby disables your music hearing. Its influence is based on a common syntax processor instead.

In the end, I tested 278 participants across 3 pre-tests, 2 experiments, and 1 post-test. Judge for yourself whether it was worth it by reading the freely available paper here.

— — —

Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert, R., Willems, R., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention Royal Society Open Science, 3 (2) DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150685


  1. I found this extremely interesting because I have always been told that my music abilities were coming from a completely different part of my brain than my language abilities. I have many struggles with language, both written and spoken, but I have a natural gift for music. Musical tones and harmonies come very easily for me, so I am interested in how my music al training might have an effect on my language skills. The speaker in the video suggests that learning a musical instrument, might have a positive effect on the ability to understand language. This brings two thoughts to my mind. The first is, since I have studied music all my life, why doesn’t it seem to have helped my ability to understand language? The follow-up thought is that maybe my language struggles would be even worse if I had not studied music.
    Obviously, even though science has made great progress in understanding how the brain works, there is still a lot we don’t know. I am always interested in any research that might be helpful in providing therapies for people like me. I would like to know if there are studies that involve musical training as therapy for language processing disorders.

  2. I found it interesting that the article said that language and music “share a common syntax processor.” Drawing from personal experiences, I remember always having a hard time listening to music and trying to write. I know for some they find it easy and prefer to actually work this way, where as for me I just find it difficult. I have to wonder if this common syntax processor has a varied strength across people, possibly providing an explanation as to why some work better or worse with music playing. If one can have visual fixations while reading, and language and music share a common processor, then is it appropriate to say that there can be auditory fixations as well? If so, then I believe this would also shed some light on multitasking between the two activities. As language is so important to humans, I believe this processor would also help explain why certain children who learn how to play a musical instrument also increase their IQ by three points. They would be training their brain to detect more “finished judgements.”

  3. I found this super interesting to read about and listen to because I never have been very musically inclined, I’ve never really understood the whole concept of playing an instrument or reading music, I definitely tried to put my mind to it! But I never fully caught on to it, or it never really kept my attention. I really liked the fact that he said that language helps us share our thoughts and memories, by letting us come together and build a culture. But music lets us take facts and transmitted thoughts into shared feelings. But by looking at them at the same time, because music and language can cross because it’s at the same part of the brain. It just surprises me because it all is relating back to grammar, but music never changes. It stays the same the whole time! I just never would have put two and two together, but it makes sense!

  4. I found this research to be very interesting. I have heard of people who have had either a stroke or other traumatic brain injury and are able to understand and communicate through music, even though they cannot verbalize their thoughts or emotions. Music is an integral part to society and does carry its own particular language depending on the culture. Children, before they can talk, respond to the meaning of music whether it is calming, energetic, or entertaining. It makes sense that music and language would both originate in the same part of the brain. I think that even more research can be done in the area of musical therapy for those who have difficulty expressing themselves or even speaking well.

  5. I didn’t find it too surprising to hear that sections of the brain used for reading would overlap with the sections while listening to music. There was a Stevie Wonder quote that said something along the lines of music was a language within itself and that it had the ability to communicate feelings. Having said that the idea that reading one language would effect your perceptions while listening to another didn’t seem too far fetched. Maybe the two intersected in the same part of the brain because it was try to dissect sentences of difficult syntax while also trying dissect the music and learn what feelings the artist was trying to convey.

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