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Language and Music

by Mark Lowe


Many scientists interested in the origins of language believe that language and music evolved together. Here, for instance, is Charles Darwin:

We must suppose that the rhythm and cadences of oratory are derived from previously developed musical powers…We may go even further than this, and …believe that musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language… (from ‘The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex’)

Here is Robbins Burling, in ‘The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved’:

We can imagine an early hominin with a single type of vocalization that was ancestral to both music and language. It would… have allowed close coordination among the participants. Then, after a united initial phase, vocalization would have split into 2 parts. The part carrying the emotional message would have developed a more regular beat and become music. The part that carried the more cognitive message would have turned into verbal language…. This scenario would account for the deep parallels that are still found between music and language.

The purposes of this article are: first, to explore these ‘deep parallels’ between language and music, and second, to propose classroom procedures which make good use of these parallels.


Communicative language teaching recognizes the importance not only of lexis and syntax, but also of stress, intonation, rhythm and voice quality in conveying our message. .Lexis and syntax are cognitive, but the other aspects of speech express feeling, and are intimately related to musical expression. Consider how David Attenborough introduces ‘Great Plains’, from the BBC’s stunning wild-life series – Planet Earth:

‘Immense distances….. vast plains …. and life in all these huge expanses … depends on one amazing plantgrass.

Attenborough, with skill honed by decades of experience, employs all the resources of the human voice to put his message across with matchless eloquence. He raises the volume and pitch of his voice to stress the important syllables (shown with bold type here), and he lowers the pitch of his voice to signal the end of an idea. He speaks with slow, measured rhythm. There are many musical parallels. One is in the way a musician articulates a melody: musicians increase the volume of their playing or singing as a melody moves towards a climax on the highest note, and they round off a melody with quiet repose. Another parallel is the use of rhythm to heighten the emotional impact of what we say, as expert orators demonstrate

I find that applying principles of stress, rhythm and intonation derived from music greatly improves my students’ speech. Meaning becomes clear, speech sounds more natural, and we understand what our students say. Moreover, these skills not only help to make meaning clear: they also add new emotional dimensions to our students’ speech: colour, emotional involvement and range – and the ability to hold an audience. There is plenty of evidence that musical parallels can help our students to improve their speaking.

Communication and Conversation

If the first parallel between music and language concerns the mechanics of speech, the second concerns language as communication. Here the parallel is between verbal communication and ensemble music-making – between talking with other people and playing music in a group. In both, we have to be proficient performers, but we also have to be proficient listeners, and we have to follow the conventions and procedures of the medium. Let us look first at ensemble music-making, and then examine the parallels with conversation and other forms of verbal communication, such as giving presentations and handling question/answer sessions.

By ‘ensemble musical performance’ I refer to any form of concerted music-making, including orchestral playing, singing in a choir, playing chamber music such as string quartets, wind quintets and piano trios, two instruments playing together as in violin and piano or cello and piano sonatas, singer and accompanist teams (a very special art form) – and jazz. In an orchestra, we have to blend, we have to adjust our pitch and volume to our neighbours, we must know how to project when we have the tune and melt into the background when we are part of the accompaniment, and so on. If we are the pianist in a violin sonata, we have to know who has the tune and who has the accompaniment and play accordingly, we have to agree on tempo and dynamics, we have to give and take, we have to ‘comment’ on the other’s phrases, and we have to listen to our fellow-musician. Above all, we have to empathize – and to be sensitive to our fellow-musicians.

When we take part in conversation, the procedures and constraints are very similar. We adjust to our fellow-speakers, we take it in turns to occupy centre-stage and to take a back seat, we comment on what is said by others, we show interest, we empathise and we are sensitive to mood. We also abide by unwritten conversation ‘rules’. As Paul Grice showed in his classic paper ‘The Logic of Conversation’, we follow definite (and largely unconscious) conventions when we engage in conversation, and if we do not follow them, awkwardness results. (Here is a summary of Grice’s four conventions:
(1) Quantity: make your contribution as informative as required. (2) Quality: say only what you believe to be true. (3) Relation: be relevant. (4) Manner: avoid obscurity and ambiguity; be brief and orderly).

Relevant classroom work that has analogies in music includes: question and answer exchanges, statements followed by comments, requests and responses, the use of ‘phatic communication’ utterances like ‘really’ and ‘oh’, and using phrases like ‘what do you think?’ and ‘do you agree?’, which oil the wheels of many an exchange. I have found such work (and the musical parallels that inform them) particularly valuable when preparing candidates for public examinations such as FCE, CAE and IELTS, in which candidates are required to take part in verbal exchanges as well as to make ‘long turn’ speeches.


Jazz is a special case. Whereas classical music is usually written down, jazz is not. Jazz musicians usually improvise round a harmonic sequence, while classical musicians follow a score. Jazz is a comparatively free idiom, and jazz musicians can respond to changes in mood more instinctively during performance than most classical musicians. Jazz is like a relaxed and improvisational style of conversation. However, although one might think that a jazz performance can be entirely free of Gricean constraints, this is not so. The jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton tells a delightful story about this in his memoir ‘It has Just Occurred to Me’. One day some jazz musicians were engaged to play on BBC radio. The producer said: ‘play whatever you like’. Silence. Then one of the band said: ‘For all the Saints’. The musicians came to life and started to improvise round the harmonies of the well-known song. Without the framework, they were lost. Even a ‘free’ jazz session, like a conversation, follows certain conventions, and our teaching has to work on the Gricean linguistic equivalents of a harmonic sequence.

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 self-conscious 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 and Hugo Wolf. If Spanish – Manuel de Falla; 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 new language.

(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 blood-stains 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), and (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 test).

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 speech-song 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.

The Imagination

Music can also generate language by stimulating the imagination. We play the music on a CD player (or live, if we can and if we play the guitar or if there is a suitable instrument available), and we ask students to talk about (or possibly to write about) the images or feelings or stories that the music conjures up in their minds. Programme music (i.e. music that tells a story) and atmospheric music are most suitable for this purpose. Here are some examples: J.S.Bach – Badinerie for flute and strings: for its brilliant vitality; Bartok – the Concerto for Orchestra and Violin Concerto: for vigorous modern sounds that seem to tell stories; Beethoven – The Pastoral Symphony: for nature; Brahms – the A major violin sonata: for warm affection; Britten – The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes: for evocative atmosphere; Bruckner – something from symphonies 7, 8 or 9: for vast spaces; almost anything by Chopin – for romantic dreams, swagger and proper pride; Debussy – La Mer or the Piano Preludes for the sea, sunken cathedrals, dancing nymphs, mists and subtle tone-pictures; Manuel de Falla’s Vida Breve for dark passions; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for ghosts and the impression created by mighty architecture (The Great Gate of Kiev); Mozart’s G minor quintet for grief; Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony for the erotic; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade for the exotic; Smetana’s Ultava (from Ma Vlast) for the story of a river and the life on its banks; Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony for brutal goose-stepping totalitarian armies; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – for violent, elemental ritual; the closing minutes of Verdi’ s Aida for death; parts of Wagner’s Ring (Brunnhilde’s Immolation and Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine) and Tristan (the Act 2 love music and the final Liebestod) for myth, legend and star-crossed love.

Much film music is also suitable: for instance, John Berry’s scary James Bond music, and the menacing zither music used for The Third Man. Such music can help the tongue-tied and hesitant to lose their inhibitions and to speak fluently. Such music can also lead to interesting written work, if students are asked to write down the impressions or images or stories suggested by the music


Music can lead to imaginative writing. Can music also help students to write coherent academic and professional texts? What follows is speculative, but I think there are two ways in which music can assist this kind of writing. The first is concerned with detailed structure, while the second is concerned with more general principles of coherence. Let us start with detailed structure.

In his wonderful book ‘The Classical Style’, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen argues that there are close parallels between sonata form in music and drama in language. (Rosen uses the term ‘sonata form’ to refer to the structure used in almost all first movements in classical music, whether symphonies, concertos or sonatas. He uses the term ‘drama’ to refer to any ‘story’ in which conflict is resolved). Sonata form and drama both open with a statement of two contrasting or conflicting themes or ideas. Both continue with a development section in which these themes and ideas are worked out together. Both conclude with a denouement in which the themes and ideas are united and reconciled. This basic plot is often expressed through a story of a man and woman meeting, going through trials, and emerging purified and more mature as man and wife (as, for instance, in Mozart’s The Magic Flute). The same underlying plot can also generate quest stories, conflict and reconciliation stories – and many other kinds of story. An analogous logic also applies to certain kinds of academic and business texts: the ‘argument’ essay, the ‘policy options’ report and so on. Two or more contrasting or opposing ideas are presented and discussed, and a solution proposed. A teacher who is familiar with the ‘logic’ of a sonata form movement by Mozart or Beethoven can use the constructional principles of that music as an analogy to help the student’s writing.

The more general role of classical music in helping students to write is simply to provide models of clarity and organization. Again, let us consider music first, and then consider the verbal parallels. Most classical music is organized according to the principles of tonality. The details of how tonality functions take us beyond the scope of this paper: it is sufficient to know that the principles are logical and rooted in the laws of physics. Classical music is organized round key relationships (both at the level of the melody and the level of a whole movement). In many works (for instance those of J. S. Bach), counterpoint is also vital, and in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner – and many others – thematic development is important as well.

Equivalents in text to key relationships, counterpoint and thematic development are: paragraph construction – including the way topic sentences and derived ideas are organized; the use of discourse markers to show the relationship between ideas; wider discourse features that give coherence to whole texts (such as narrative or problem / evidence / solution), introductions and conclusions, and so on. Syntax governs the organization of smaller stretches of text, as harmony governs the organization of melody. Although music is primarily concerned with emotion, its construction follows very ‘cognitive’ rules, and those ‘rules’ have a role to play in improving students’ writing.

People often think of music as being a sort of unorganised drifting of the imagination. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most classical music is constructed with the precision and skill of a Swiss watch-maker. Music’s most important role for students needing to write clear and well-crafted English is simply to provide models of that precision and craftsmanship, which then influence the written text.


Let us conclude by recapitulating the key parallels between music and language, and summarizing the main ways in which we can use music to help students master a foreign language. Music and language are two forms of communication: music is more concerned with emotion, while language is more concerned with cognitive messages. Emotion and cognition constantly overlap, which is where music and language converge. Every time we want to convey emotion in speech, we use techniques derived from music: stress, rhythm, intonation and voice quality. Every time we engage in conversation or other forms of concerted speech, we use techniques analogous to those of the ensemble musician. We listen, we empathise, we comment on what is said, we follow communicative patterns, we adjust to others in numerous ways – and we are sensitive to our fellows. In the classroom, we build on these insights. We practise verbal stress, intonation and rhythm. We work on techniques for helping students to interact with others. We also sing songs (or recite the words of songs), and we thereby give our students’ speech added vitality, emotion and colour. We can stimulate the imaginations of our students – and help them to express themselves better – by asking them to listen to music and to comment on what they hear. Music conjures up visions (Debussy), it can soothe us (some Mozart), excite us (some Beethoven), or make us feel more alive (Haydn) or erotic (Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan and Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony), or patriotic (military marches). We can use music to attract the opposite sex (Strauss waltzes, disco music). We use music to mark important days: weddings, funerals, coronations – and parties. Music has endless power to stimulate our emotions. We can use music to help our students to write more coherent and imaginative text, too.

A few million years ago, our distant ancestors chanted together. Gradually the chant divided into language and music as our species evolved. But music and language still have much in common: there are still deep parallels between them. Music provides the emotion that brings speech to life. Language that is influenced by music is more interesting, more powerful, better able to influence others – and much better able to convey emotion – than a language that is limited to syntax and lexis. Classroom teaching that encourages music to take its natural role in language learning is much more effective – and much more interesting – than teaching devoted only to grammar and vocabulary.

This article first appeared in Modern English Teacher, July 2007

Author’s Bio:
Mark has recently moved from being DoS in IH Tbilisi to the DoS job in IH Sarajevo. He was educated at Clifton and King’s College Cambridge, where he studied music and philosophy. After nine years In the British Council, he Joined Longman as a commissioning editor, spending nearly twenty years as an EFL and general educational publisher. He did his Celta and Delta in the mid-1980s, and has been back in the classroom ever since, working In Saudi Arabia, Poland, Estonia, China, Azerbaijan and Georgia. He is mainly involved now with teacher development.

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