coined the term “auditory cheesecake” to describe music as “a delightful dessert” rather than the “main dish” of language.1 But though the view that music came only as a by-product of language was widely accepted at the time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow challenged him with the idea that “music is the universal language.” Up until the recent years, many neuroscientists have held the traditional view that music and language are entirely separate from each other, and that at most, language gave rise to music as societies developed. However, some new theories are now rising that support the contrary view — that music in fact develops with language and can even help language development.

Music develops with language and can even help language development

While language is often viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, theorists from Rice University and the University of Maryland2 have boldly argued that it is “more productive from a developmental perspective to describe spoken language as a special type of music,” and that music plays a fundamental role in understanding human development. Dispelling the stereotype that music is just sound produced by instruments or voices, they emphasize that the term “music” implies an attention to the “acoustic features of sound.”

Dr. Anthony Brandt, co-author of the paper and associate professor of composition and theory at the Shepherd School of Music, says that unlike adults, babies hone into the most musical aspects of speech—the rhythm, phonemic patterns and consistencies—instead of meaning.3 For Brandt and his co-authors, this, along with other empirical evidence, is enough reason to say that music and language develop along similar time lines.

The auditory brain may have been designed to hear music, and speech is simply the happy byproduct

And their theories have been empirically shown by neuroscience imaging studies. According to the Children’s Music Workshop, “recent studies have clearly indicated that musical training physically develops the part of the left side of the brain known to be involved with processing language, and can actually wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways.”In another imaging study conducted at Johns Hopkins,5researchers found that the imaged brains of jazz musicians engaged in spontaneous improvisation show activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. So while many scientists believe that language is what makes us human, there is increasing evidence that shows us that “the brain is wired to process acoustic systems that are far more complicated than speech.” Charles Limb, an investigator in the study, observes that “if the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech.” He goes as far to suggest that “the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music, and speech is simply the happy byproduct.”

If the correlation between music and language is as strong as some researchers and theorists say, then it might explain why music therapy helps those with reading and speech disorders, such as dyslexia. Dr. Brandt is further hopeful, and suggests that more research could also shed light on rehabilitation for people who have suffered a stroke. “Music helps them acquire language, because that may be how they acquired language in the first place.”3 With all these new ideas, perhaps music really can move up from the “desserts” to the “entrées” on the menu of human language development.

Lucy Lai is a freshman from Lovett College at Rice University.


  1. Honing, H.; Was Steven Pinker Right After All? (accessed 3/15/15), part of Psychology Today

  2. Brandt, A. K.; Slevc, R; Gebrian, M. Music and Early Language Acquisition. Front. Psychol. 20123, 1664-1078.

  3. Almond, B.J. Theory: Music underlies language acquisition. (accessed 1/23/15), part of Rice University News and Media

  4. Brown, L. L. The Benefits of Music Education. (accessed 1/23/15), part of PBS Parents

  5. Lafrance, A. How Brains See Music as Language. 1/23/15), part of The Atlantic

1 Comment