Are musicians better language learners?

The connotation linked to playing music would have us believe that musicians are at a meaningful advantage when learning languages. We tend to view musicians as people with supple minds whose faculty for listening prepares them for picking up on different sound variations much better than non-musicians.

Without anyone being entirely sure why, this transfer of skill from music to language somehow seems to make sense. Perhaps it is the idea of creating and accepting new ideas that better prepares musicians for the language class?

In terms of what I have personally witnessed, I would answer a definite “no” about the supposed advantage of musicians. Just as quickly, I will also say that any such experiment is flawed because of the strong variables that will influence our observations. The degree of engagement of the musician towards their particular source of learning being one of them.

In simple terms, a seasoned musician might get terrible results in a foreign language simply because they don’t engage with their source of learning. Upon switching their method of learning they might get better results. But how do we compare this result to what other musicians are doing? We would have to create a laboratory in which we asked musicians and non-musicians to remember words and carry this over meaningful periods of time. But how do we create the laboratory to recreate realistic conditions of language learning?

The experiment would be flawed because of outside variables: the gradual boredom of participating in such an experiment and the knowledge that they are participating in an experiment and that their learning efforts are observed in an unnatural way.

In the absence of any reliable way of comparing the success of musicians and non-musicians we must rely on common sense and our own observations.

The major question is whether the skill used in song composing, reading sheet music, being in a band or discovering new instruments is in any way related to the skill of language learning. Indeed, being a musicians is not just one thing. There are different definitions and skills within music. Simply being “a musician” is much too broad a term.

My own skill as a musician is spread over several competences: I am a non-reader of sheet music, I compose songs on the acoustic guitar, I sing, I play the trombone by copying old reggae songs, I play the drums by setting a metronome speed and inventing rhythms, I play the bass guitar without an amp just for the pleasure of feeling my fingers on the strings, I play the electric guitar without an amp also, I have a cigar-box guitar which I like to use when I relax in the sun… Several instruments that I play for different reasons and at a different level of skill.

Whether this competence places me at an advantage for learning languages is unlikely. Even though I might clearly hear tonal variations or lengths of sounds in a foreign language, this might also have more to do with my ability as a language teacher. Let’s not forget that there are also non-musicians who are avid music listeners and might hear just as well as a musician.

The one concession I would make in this debate would be the faculty for curiosity. The ability to marvel at discoveries might be the one transferable skill from music to languages.

Language learning is all about discovery and the pleasure that is ours when doing so which in turn makes us want to come back for more. The most unsuccessful learners of foreign languages that I have met are those who do not have the joy of discovering new concepts, and overcoming them. They will not marvel at the difference between their native language and their L2 language. As a result, language learning will be boring to them and will fail to produce results.

Provided a musician is able to channel this curiosity into other areas of their life, there might be room to make the case that music helps learners of languages.

On the flip side, I have met non-musicians who were brilliant learners of French. I have also met brilliant musicians who were challenged to master their own mother tongue. Some musicians with amazingly supple minds and others are as closed and stubborn as you will ever meet.

The curiosity and discovery might reach a plateau within the activity of music-making. A musician who specializes in just one type of music their whole career and never ventures into different styles, points of view or instruments will quickly stagnate and nullify whatever theoretical advantage they might possess.

I was fortunate to teach a well-known Scandinavian violinist just before the outbreak of Covid. The gentleman was required to learn French in order to work for a Parisian orchestra and while he did seem to have a more acute sense of focusing, it didn’t necessarily put him at an advantage. I can’t say that after our 10 lessons together I saw in him the greatest potential because of his high-level skill on the violin.

Yet another factor that may come into play is the degree to which a musician has reflected on their art and their own learning. A music teacher would be better placed to learn a language than a musician who has never theorized their technique. For many musicians and artists, there is a high level of instinctive creativity. The piece of art looks good “just because” and is the outcome of the years of practice rather than a carefully-annotated learning curve. In short, the musician doesn’t “know” why they choose to play a solo on one note rather than on another. It just sounds good.

An active understanding of how learning works will also differentiate between musicians. Those who fully understand how the human brain reacts when facing new challenges and how they got from A to B will be able to apply this method to languages.

Taking my own experience on the trombone as an example, I remember being disappointed with the poor quality of my sound one year ago. Many hours of practice later, I have now solved this problem. The knowledge I can draw from this is that the addition of hours will make me successful in any new venture. Patience is the key. As a second piece of wisdom, I might also conclude that recording myself and keeping track of my progress helped me out a lot. By reflecting on my journey as a learner, I will be able to use this life lesson and apply it to new fields of knowledge.

Making the blanket statement that musicians have the advantage of languages stands on shaky ground. Too many variables within music will make this impossible to verify. As we saw, there are musicians who play occasionally, those who are happy to stay at the same level, those who read music, those who play professionally… between a trumpet player in a marching band and the guitarist Joe Satriani both are musicians. But only one of the two pushes the boundaries of creativity.

So for those of you whose musical ability is limited to singing “happy birthday” out of tune, don’t worry. If I were to guess, curiosity and a sense of structure are the main ingredients that are needed.

There is still a chance!

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