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The Language Has its Ups and Downs

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The Language Has its Ups and Downs


I grew up in South Korea for most of my life surrounded by music.  Everywhere I go, the sounds of life harmonize as an orchestra.  As soon as I got off the airplane in U.S., my ears were busy catching different pitches of music spoken by various people at the airport. When I realized I lost my luggage, I went to a security guard, confident that my English was good from years of classes in school in Korea.  “Excuse me.  I lost my luggage.  Where should I go to find it?”, I said.  I rehearsed this grammatically perfect sentence in my head for 2 milliseconds and then spoke it out.  But the outcome was not as good as the rehearsal.  He couldn’t understand my staccato, monotone beat made in Korea.  The response I got from him was a playful, impressive, and brief one melody. “Par~♪ (d)on♬?”  His music was artfully amplified by a strong aspirated sound of pa!, aggressive rebounding sound of “r” with the curled tongue that Koreans don’t have and almost inaudible sound of the constant “d” followed by a soft nasal sound of “n” ending in high pitch.  I was surprised how this one short word can play such a dynamic harmony like singing.  From my experiences and observations living in the States, I propose that “accents” in U.S.A. can be viewed as high and low pitches of the sound— good components of vivid music. 

In this paper, I will be exploring the relationship between the human brain’s interpretation of music and language in terms of sound pitch.  I will first look into the auditory system to understand the brain’s recognition of different pitches and what the music and the spoken language have in common.  The paper will proceed by asking and answering questions as follows:  How human can distinguish high pitches from low pitches? What is the biochemical difference in the brain when heard high-pitched sound and when heard low pitched-sound?  What is the relationship between music and language?  Furthermore, once we are convinced with the integration of the music and language in brain function, I will be looking into how the pitch of the sound (spoken language) affects our brain for language acquisition and human behavior.

Pitches are frequencies of oscillations or vibrations.  The human ear distinguishes different frequencies by vibration of the different parts of the basilar membrane in auditory structure.  The basilar membrane has a stiff, narrow opening by oval window and it gets wider and more flexible as it proceeds to the tip of the spiral apex.  When a high-frequency is heard, the stiff, narrow end vibrates maximally; however, when low-frequency is heard, the spiral end vibrates maximally.  The intermediate structure is responsible for frequencies between the range [3].   This is an explanation of physical mechanism of input of the pitch in sensory system.   When sound is received, the vibrations made in the auditory system are converted to electrical nerve impulses.  These impulses are interpreted by the cerebral cortex and subcortex and then travel through the autonomic nervous system and the entire body.  While the brain is decoding the electrical nerve impulses, either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system may be activated [5].

Scientists postulate that music may release neurotransmitters like endorphins from the brain[5]. From our daily experience, a high-pitched sound produces sympathetic nervous arousal, while a low pitched sound causes relaxation. 

Music and spoken language are common because both involve the use of “functionally and acoustically complex” sound and they are generally attributed to the neocortex[5].  Music is universal and the integral part of language in all culture.

Language spoken by people of different backgrounds doesn’t sound the same due to different accents and elements of sound such as intonation, pitch, rhythm, and volume they are used to.  These components vary from language to language and from people to people.  In other words, each language has its own sound of music.   Particularly, the relationship between pitch and language can be explored by a tonal language, a language that uses a pitch to differentiate words.  Mandarin is an example of tonal language and English is an example of non-tonal language.  The meaning of the word greatly differs by the pitch for Chinese people who speak Mandarin.  For example, /ma/ spoken with high or rising pitch patterns means 'mother' or 'numb', respectively[6].

One study found that musicians are better at learning the foreign languages than non-musicians. [1] In this study, non-native language speech perception by musicians and non-musicians was compared by measuring the frequency following response (FFR) that comes from the auditory brainstem.  It has been reported that English listeners with long years of musical experience was better than English listeners with no musical experience in Mandarin tone identification and discrimination.  

The purpose of this experiment is to find a neurophysiological explanation of the effect of extensive musical training on speech perception.  The experiment shows that people who are trained in music for a long period of time have an advantage to use pitch information in the context of music.  The interaction between auditory acuity and high cognitive performance is controlled via “feedback from the higher-level cortex to the auditory brainstem such that the pitch information is deciphered from subcortical structures to the neocortex to facilitate successful performance of cognitively demanding tasks.” [6]

Finally, our last concern is how the spoken language affects our brain and determines human behavior.  The unique elements(pitch, beat, rhythm, volume, etc) in the sound of spoken languages may also influence human behavior.  For example, my sister-in-law moved from Korea to the States at age 19 and is working at company where she speaks extensive English.  She told me as a result of switching her language to English, her personality changed to a great extent.  Using various pitch and gesture during conversation, she became outgoing and more social than before.  There is also a case where the brain controls human behavior via the use of different pitch.  For example, it was reported that women's voices become more high-pitched during ovulation[2].  The higher pitched the voice is, the more feminine it sounds like. 

In this paper, I looked into the relationship between human brain’s interpretation of music and language in terms of pitch of the sound.  Vibration occurring in different regions of basal membrane can explain how human distinguishes different pitches or frequencies.   A music and the spoken language have in common such as extensive use of sound and overlapping region of the brain.  Ultimately, we learned that the relationship between music and language is closely tied to our brain function and the brain’s role in determining human behavior.  Finally, from the relationship between music and culture/personality, we were also able to relate language and behavior.

I was a monotone musician at the airport.  I had tried in different ways to enhance my music.  These days, I am soaked in music: from Mozart’s Sonata in C major K545 to Frankie J.'s 'Don't wanna try.'  When I was singing along with Frankie, perfectly following the pitch, rhythms, and pronunciations, I soon realized I was speaking English fluently like him!  Music helped me to improve my English.  Not only do I learn the correct pronunciation of each word, I get used to the correct intonation like a native speaker.  I let it flow from my lips.  I think my strong affinity of music while speaking English helps me forget my worry of making mistakes I might make during conversation. 

We have looked into the relationship between the brain, sound, language, and culture.  My next question arising from this topic is about speed reading.  Some say that music education can help children improve reading skills[4], but it might hinder speed reading.  Many speed reading programs propose that subvocalization slows down the reading and recommends photo reading[7].  This is a hole that indicates the division between language and sound.  I wonder if this is scientifically true and wish to further see how to subvocalization affects the brain. 


Work Cited


1.        Bradlow, Ann. Information Flow and Plasticity across Levels of Linguistic Sound Structure: Responses to the Target Papers by Cutler & Weber and by Goldinger. August 2007 Web.11 Apr 2009. <>.


2.       Bryant et al. “Women's Voices Become More High-pitched During Ovulation." Vocal cues of ovulation in human females.  29 October 2008 Web. 1 Apr 2009. <>.


3.       Chiras, Daniel D. "Distinguishing Pitch and Intensity." 11 Apr 2009 <,M1>.



4.       Piro, Joseph M. "Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills." The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills of primary grade students .16 March 2009 Web.1 Apr 2009. <>.


5.       Seaward, Brian Luke. "Music As a Relaxation Technique ." Managin Stress Web.16 Apr 2009. <,M1>.


6.       Wong, Patrick C M “Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns." Nature Neuroscience 11 March 2007 Web.6 Apr 2009. < >.


7.       "How to eliminate subvocalization in order to increase reading speed." Web.8 Apr 2009. <>.







Paul Grobstein's picture

Music and language

Its interesting indeed that some languages are more "musical" than others, that some people are more attuned to music than others, and that one's behavior can be influenced by the language one uses.  That all would seem to be telling us some important things both about the brain and about culture.