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Music – could it be Language?

For Immediate Release
31 October 2005

Music – could it be Language?

If you ever see a musician speak while listening to music they may not necessarily be crazy, they could just be talking back to the music.

Lucy Patston, a PhD student from The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science, has discovered that musicians hear music as a language.

“Past research has shown that musicians process music on the left side of their brain as opposed to non-musicians who process music on the right side,” says Lucy, who is doing her research through the Faculty’s department of Psychology.

“The left hemisphere is predominantly used to process language, so my research has been trying to find out if musicians actually process music as language.”

To research this area Lucy undertook a major study testing 36 expert musicians and 36 non-musicians, using a large number of cognitive tests.

“Each participant had to do two visual and two language tasks under three different testing conditions.

“They had to do the tests with no music, while listening to music played with the right notes and while listening to music played with the wrong notes.”

Taking two and a half hours for each participant, the tests were designed to see if the various conditions enhanced or impeded their performance.

When the musicians did the language tests in silence, they scored better than the non-musicians, however under the two music conditions their performance significantly dropped.

The performance of non-musicians was not significantly different in any of the conditions suggesting they were not affected by the presence of music.

“The evidence from these initial tests suggests that musicians hear music as language because they have difficulty processing both language and music at the same time, the brain is competing for the same resources.”

An unexpected finding of the research was that musicians scored higher in the test in silent conditions which may eventually have a significant impact on the way children are taught from a young age.

“I was surprised to see that the participants that played music were at an advantage cognitively.”

Lucy recently received top prize in the Faculty of Science’s Postgraduate Society Poster Competition for her current research work.

The competition provided an opportunity for students to display their research in a manner that non-scientists easily understand.

Lucy says the competition was a good way of developing skills to explain the technical aspect of her study to non-specialist audiences.

In the next phase of her research Lucy hopes to put candidates through the University’s Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining machine which will show the specific parts of the brain working.

Using similar testing methods the machine will be able to further explore her findings.

ENDS

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