The Scientific Reason Singers Have a Knack for Language

What’s the difference between Mozart and Pavarotti? Well, one was a child prodigy and composer who systematically learned the rules of music at an early age — the other, a pitch-perfect expert at mimicry.  

Singers have a knack for foreign languages, most notably when it comes to pronunciation and accent because, like parrots, they mimic what they hear. It’s something that Pavarotti, who couldn’t read sheet music, did with his operatic singing. 

“The singer is the best with the accent,” says Susanne Reiterer, a neurolinguistics researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria. “A foreign accent is a piece of cake for them.”

Studies reveal that Heschl’s gyrus, a type of ridge on the brain’s surface that contains the primary auditory cortex, plays a significant role in musical aptitude and language aptitude, especially when there are a higher number of gyri. So some researchers believe that, based on the structure of the brain, some are simply born to be musicians. “Talking uses the same biological makeup as singing, so it must be related biologically and neurobiologically,” Reiterer says. “It’s almost like two sides of one coin.”

C López Ramón Y Cajal, a descendant of Santiago Ramón y Cajal — the founder of modern neurobiology — found that the gyri are formed mid-pregnancy and continue to grow as the fetus develops, as reported in a 2019 Medical Hypotheses article.

Rehearsing and training over time have an impact on the brain, but Reiterer says biology also plays a leading role. “You can change a lot by rehearsing, but something is pre-given as well,” Reiterer adds. “It’s 50/50 genes and environment, and if you have a strong pre-disposition [musically] then you have more power basically in your auditory areas. You can discriminate sounds better.” 

In Reiterer’s 2015 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience study, 96 participants categorized as instrumentalists, vocalists and non-musicians were tested for their abilities to imitate a language unknown to them — in this case, Hindi. Her team found vocalists had an advantage over instrumentalists, as they outperformed them in foreign language imitation, but both vocalists and instrumentalists outperformed non-musicians. This research also suggested that vocal motor training may allow singers to learn a language faster. 

And when children experience music early on in life, they’re able to achieve lifelong neuroplasticity, wrote Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, and co-author Travis White-Schwoch in American Scientist. At Northwestern’s Brainvolts lab, this team also found that the more musicians play, the more they benefit: Speech-sound processing ability builds up across one’s lifespan. Musicians exhibited better attention, sharper working memory, and better neural speech-sound processing as the number of practicing years increased. 

Even in the early 2000s, research suggested that long-term training in music and pitch recognition allows a person to better process the pitch patterns of a foreign language, a concept that Reiterer also explored in an Annual Review of Applied Linguistics article published this March. 

Reiterer has also investigated how a person’s initial aptitude develops due to factors such as biological maturing, socio-cultural factors and musical ability, to name a few, as reported in a May 2021 Neurobiology of Language article.

“It’s the body that feels where I have to move my tongue,” Reiterer says. “And this feeling has a correlation in the brain, proprioception. That is the key to good pronunciation and the key to a good singer.” 

So, for those tapping into both language and music — things just click. 

Read more: Scientific American

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