The question of whether music functions as a form of language is a hotly debated topic with a long history. Musicologists, psychologists, sociologists, linguists, neurologists and many others have had a go at answering the question and ultimately they all end up with the same answer; ‘music is a language… sort of’.
The latest study to support this half answer comes from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Taking a sample of 11 jazz pianists, two at a time were placed in MRI scanners and asked to swap backwards and forwards playing improvised solos, taking from where the other left off.
The results showed that the syntactic areas of the brain, which help us process sentences and create order, were very busy during the experiment. However, the semantic areas of the brain, which help us attribute meaning, were not nearly as active as one would expect of somebody engaged in conversation. The researchers have concluded that while our brains may operate in a similar way when processing the structure of communication – whether through oral language or through music – our brains must operate in very different ways when processing the meaning behind language or musical sounds.
What does that mean for us, in our day to day lives? It means that, structurally at least, music is processed in our brains in a similar way to language and therefore it can be learned. Which we already knew. It also means that we still can’t say for sure whether music carries meaning in the same way that language does, and if we’re honest that’s kind of the point of language. So, music is a language, sort of.