Monday, December 16, 2013

Music, Language, and the Brain

by Aniruddh D. Patel

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

Thoughts: This was actually the textbook for a university class I recently took called "Language and Music". Normally I would never include textbooks on my book blog, but this was the exception for a few reasons:
a) I actually read it all the way through, cover to cover, without skipping sections. This is unheard of for me and textbooks.
b) It was more a book than a textbook, we just happened to use it as our textbook.
c) It could be quite fascinating, and I wanted to talk about it briefly.

The book is divided into six sections, each comparing an attribute that language and music both posses: sound elements (pitch and timbre), rhythm, melody, syntax, meaning, and evolution. Patel goes into great depth, discussing current thought, dispensing with outdated ideas, and laying out new areas to study further.

I'd like to share a few random little facts here that I picked up along the way. And they really are random--not the focus of the chapters or anything, simply a few things that struck me.

--There is this Amazonian tribe, called the Pirahã, whose language doesn't have numbers or fixed terms for colours, who don't have a creation myth or any drawing outside of stick figures, and yet they have music in abundance. (pg. 3)*
--There is evidence that children's rhythm is syllable-time (like French speaking adults), as opposed to the stressed-timed rhythm of English speaking adults. This doesn't really mean much to most people, especially if you haven't had "syllable-timed" and "stress-timed" explained to you, but I thought it was a super cool observation that made a surprising amount of sense. (pg. 134-5)
--There are important syntactic features of language shared by ALL human languages. There are very few of this syntactic universals in music. (pg. 242)
--When musicians and non-musicians are asked to draw something that visually describes short orchestral pieces, musicians tend to create abstract representations (focused on structural aspects such as repetition and theme structure), while non-musicians draw images or stories. (pg. 323-4)
--Simply overhearing a different language casually (if before the age of 6) will better your pronunciation of that language's phonemes when you're an adult. (pg. 362)

*All page numbers are for the 2008 paperback edition.

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