On Science, Language, and Great Divides

Reading Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, among other influences, has me thinking about the relationship between music and language, lately, so I thought I’d write out a few thoughts. This is Your Brain on Music is a great read, as everyone else I know discovered at least three years ago, but if you’ve been living under the same rock I have, I encourage you to read it. Levitin brings his experience as a musician, recording engineer and neuroscientist to bear on the subject of music’s deep roots in the structure and evolution of the human mind. As a psychology student and a music geek, I experienced a lot of ‘a-ha!’ moments throughout. He speaks mainly from a perspective of neurology and psychology — that is to say, about the mechanics of human behavior around music, but connects all of his work neatly to the bigger questions.


What’s most interesting to me, in the research Levitin cites, is that music and language seem to share some mechanisms in the brain. Neurologists have some ability to examine what happens in the brain when we listen to music, now, and these experiments are informing the study of both music and language. The two fields seem to be separated by quite a wall, in science, but I think our methods are good enough, at last, that we may finally be forced into a serious conversation about where the division between the two lies.

It’s tempting to say that music isn’t language, just because it’s not a system for encoding and decoding references to other ideas. That begs the question of what music is, of course, but there’s an even more tantalizing question, to me: are we sure that’s what language is? And on this one, consider me a skeptic. We love talking about language as a tool that encodes and transmits factual assertions about the external world, but how much of our use of speech (or writing, for that matter,) actually goes to that purpose? If I described people interactively making sound for each other’s amusement, which would you guess I was talking about, and why? I have to imagine that, if we understood music better, we would begin to learn things we’ve never suspected before, about what’s really happening when people speak to each other.

I’m reminded of Ezra Pound’s line, that “the poem fails when it strays to far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance”. If we extrapolate the possibility that the paragraph can stray too far from the poem, then what, exactly, are we measuring in all of those distances? Nice to be excited by science, once in a while.

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