Language and Music
The Parallels Between Learning/Teaching Language and Learning/Teaching Music
by Mark Lowe
Learning and the brain
Studying music, like studying a foreign language, is a slow process. It takes a long time to move music and language from
hesitant short-term memory to confident long-term memory, as I am very much aware when I set out to learn a new piece of music.
It takes at least six weeks – and often much longer – to master the piano part of a Beethoven or Brahms violin sonata. It takes
even longer to learn a significant part of a new language (such as Georgian, in my case).
What goes on in the brain while we painstakingly work on mastering language and music? Let us, again, start with music, and
then consider the parallels with language. When we start practising a piece of music, we study different facets of the music one by one.
We might first work on technical problems, sorting out difficult fingering (this involves a lot of slow practice – and work with separate
hands), then we practise phrasing (so vital in Bach and Mozart), and we analyse the music’s form and decide on dynamics. Eventually, as
our long-term memory absorbs all this, the separate aspects of the music cohere into a holistic and unified performance, in which
much technical detail is absorbed into the unconscious or ‘automatic’ part of the brain.
A similar process takes place when we learn to
speak a foreign language. We start by taking different aspects of speech and working on them one by one: clear stress, appropriate
intonation, recognizable phonemes, volume and rhythm, how to highlight key words, and so on. Gradually all these different aspects of
spoken language cohere in the long-term memory, so that we are able, for instance, to give a convincing presentation to a business
meeting and to handle the post-talk question and answer session with confidence. I find, in particular, that Business English students
often make outstanding progress in giving presentations if we allow time for their long-term memory to do its work. The process
cannot be rushed, but when it is given time, the results can be dramatic: the most selfconscious and hesitant student blossoms into
a confident public speaker.
I become more tolerant of my students’ difficulties when I think about the brain. The
average human brain needs a long time to assimilate new knowledge and new skills, so we teachers just have to be patient while the
brain churns away.
Song, which combines both music and language, can be very helpful in teaching students how to express emotion in the new
language – and how to speak with a comprehensible accent. A good song highlights the rhythm, the melodic shape and
the important words. When the words are memorized they deeply influence the way we speak the new language, making it more
natural, more charged with emotion – and easier for others to understand. Many composers have extraordinary sensitivity to
the sounds of speech, and their songs can serve as models for language students. If you want to speak English well, listen to the songs
of John Dowland, Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten and George Gershwin. If you want to speak French, listen to the songs of Debussy,
Duparc and Poulenc. If you want to speak German, listen to songs by Schubert, Brahms if Russian – Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky; if
Czech – Janacek, and so on. The words we hear in songs gradually build into a mental store which influences the way we speak the
(I am particularly conscious of the value of songs, having learned a lot of Italian this way: not only from popular songs by Domenico
Modugno and others, but also from arias in Mozart, Verdi and Puccini operas, and Monteverdi madrigals, too. I learned a lot of
Italian through songs, so it seems reasonable to suppose that students of English can learn a lot of English through songs, too.)
What songs are most effective for the teaching of English? The songs we choose must appeal to the tastes of our students. Different ages
and different backgrounds will appreciate different kinds of songs. One group will like The Beatles, another will prefer more recent
pop songs. Some will want to hear the exquisite songs of John Dowland or the trenchant songs of Purcell, others will be
interested in the dazzling settings of Tennyson and the Lyke Wake Dirge in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, or his brilliant
versions of folk songs. Some may like traditional songs like ‘Loch Lomond’ or ‘Cockles and Mussels’ or the haunting‘Waltzing Matilda’ from Australia, or ‘Danny Boy’ from Ireland. Many will warm to the songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter: ‘Night
and Day’, ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off ’, and many more. I
have had notable success with the macabre humour of Tom Lehrer (and his impeccable diction). Here are two examples of his lyrics:
‘Don’t solicit for your sister – that’s not nice.
Or at least not unless you get – half the price…’
‘I hold your hand in mine, dear. I press it to my lips.
I take a healthy bite from your dainty finger tips.
The night you die I cut it off – I don’t know really why,
And now whenever I kiss it, I get bloodstains on my tie.’
Songs should also satisfy classroom criteria:
(1) the melody must be catchy, and easy to remember;
(2) the words must be memorable and worth remembering;
(3) the song must not offend (some rap songs may be unacceptable in some classrooms);
(4) – last but certainly not least – the diction of the singer must be crystal clear (some pop songs used with modern EFL courses fail this
When we have chosen our song, what do we ask our students to do with it? We can ask them to sing it – that is surely best. However,
many students – and especially older students – feel uncomfortable singing in the classroom, and other techniques need to be used with
them. For instance, we can use the speechsong that Rex Harrison successfully popularised in the film version of ‘My Fair
Lady’. Although he did not sing, he did follow the rhythm and melodic shape of the song as he spoke the words, as in this example:
‘Why can’t a woman … be like a man?
Men are so sensible … Men don’t fuss.
Why can’t a woman … be like us?’
This technique has many advantages: it highlights the rhythm, stress patterns and intonation contours of speech. It conveys the emotion behind the words. It helps to fix the words in the memory. It can be great fun.
Songs can also be used for more conventional exercises, such as gap-fills focusing on articles, prepositions, vocabulary and so on. But the
real benefits of songs are long-term. The words stick in the memory: they help us to think in the new language: they deeply
influence the way we talk in the language, making our speech more natural, more tinged with emotion – and more comprehensible.
Once absorbed into the long-term memory, songs help to give our speech colour, emotion and imagination.
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