Music and Language Learning

Quite frankly, the number of time that I have started, and failed, to learn a second language is embarrassing. Despite my best intentions, I can never seem to stick with it for longer than a couple of weeks at most. One of the main reasons for my constant failure is my perceived lack of progress. Words that I had spent a few days mastering would suddenly disappear from my mind as I would stare blankly at my computer screen trying to remember the German word for ‘fruit’. I’m sure I’m not alone in my failed endeavours. Thankfully, the work done by Vicky Williamson could provide you and I with the tools necessary to finally succeed in becoming bilingual. And the key to success might just lie in music.

Ask a student how they study for exams, and more than a few will tell you that they like to have music on in the background. They claim that it can help them focus on the task at hand. For others, the presence of music is a distractor, making it almost impossible to concentrate on anything else other than the melody that is playing. Previous work by Thompson et al in 2001 demonstrated that listening to music can relieve boredom and fatigue, and was even able to show that the Mozart Effect (an idea based off the 1993 study by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky that showed that listening to Mozart increased spatial-reasoning skills on a task. This idea was widely misinterpreted that listening to Mozart could help increase IQ) was an artefact of music increasing arousal and mood.  Therefore, music in a general sense can helps us perform better in tasks. But is that all there is to it? The research would suggest that there is a slightly more complex interaction between music and language.

Williamson argues that there is a shared overlap in memory processes between music and language, and it is this that can allow music to enhance our learning of another tongue.  Functional magnetic imaging studies (fMRI) have shown that, in comparable memory tasks for both, there is a similar overlap in brain regions that are activated (Koelsch et al, 2009). Additionally, a study by Ho et al in 2003 was able to show that musical training can improve verbal memory in children. Those who were studying music had better verbal memory than those not and, a year later, those who continued studying music had a better verbal memory than either those who had never learnt, or those who had given up learning. There was no effect of musical training on visual memory, suggesting that there is a special relationship between music and language that could possibly be exploited when it comes to teaching yourself another language.

Having established that there is a relationship between the two, the question then becomes whether there is an overlap in terms of rehearsal or encoding of information. In an experiment by Schaal et al, 2015, participants were given transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in the supramarginal gyrus during the encoding stage and retention stage of a pitch memory task. TMS emits a magnetic pulse that induces activity within the underlying neurons. The supramarginal gyrus is traditionally associated with language perception and processing. Therefore, if stimulation of this area results in a change in a pitch memory task, it would suggest that the two domains are linked. They were able to show that TMS during the retention stage led to an increase in reaction time when compared to controls, whilst there was no effect ton reaction time in the encoding condition. Therefore, there seems to be an overlap in rehearsal between music and language.

Whilst this is highly interesting, and it is useful to know about the relationship between these two domains, I’m still not closer to knowing what I can do to actually learn a language. Thankfully, an experiment by Kang and Williamson in 2012 might just be able to help. They theorised that simple instrumental music would help people in learning a second language, and employed the use of ‘earworms’, an audio CD where learning a language it set to background music. Taking the two most bought CDs (Arabic and Mandarin), they tested 32 participants learning one of the languages for two weeks, spending about 30 minutes each day on learning. Some would be learning with music in the background, and others would learn without music. They were tested on their ability to recall from their native language to the language that they were learning, and their ability to translate from the learnt language to their first language. Additionally, they were rated on their ability to pronounce the new words that they had been learning by native speakers on a scale of 1-9 and asked to keep a diary about their enjoyment and achievement when learning.  Interestingly, there was no effect of music when it came to learning Arabic. Both recall and translation stayed roughly the same between the two groups, and there was no improvement in pronunciation.  However, when it came to learning Mandarin, music did play an important role; those who learnt with music in the background had better recall and translation abilities compared to those learning without music. Nevertheless, there was still no effect on pronunciation.

Why would music affect Mandarin but not Arabic? This is difficult to answer. Reviewers for the paper claimed that, as Mandarin is a tonal language, music could have more of an influence. However, Williamson argues that, if this was the case, there also should have been a difference in pronunciation. For now, this will have to remain a mystery until further work is done.

Will I finally be able to master another language after years of trying by using music? The work done by Williamson suggests that this is certainly a possibility, although it does seem that music is better suited for helping us learn a more tonal language. Maybe it’s time for me to switch from trying to learn German to learning Mandarin.

Yǔ gǎnxiè Dr Williamson.


David Budd



Ho, Y., Cheung, M., Chan, A. (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: Cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17(3), 439-450.

Kang, J., Williamson, V. (2014) Background music can aid second language learning. Psychology of Music. 42(5), 728-747

Koelsch, S., K. Schulze, D. Sammler, et al. 2009. Functional architecture of verbal and tonal working memory: an FMRI study. Hum. Brain Mapp, 30, 859– 873.

Rauscher, F.H. , Shaw, G.L. & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Schaal, N., Williamson, V.,  Kelly, M., Muggleton, N., Bannisy, M. (2015). Time-specific involvement of the left SMG during the retention of musical pitches. Cortex, 64, 310–317

Thompson, W., Schellenberg, E., Husain, G. (2001).  Arousal, Mood, and The Mozart Effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251.



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