As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, I am a professional musician. Primarily, I am a saxophonist, but I also sing and compose. Even though my career is in music, I began seriously studying languages around the same time.
I’m often asked if knowing music has made me a better language learner and vice versa. My knee-jerk response to each has always been, “I don’t think so,” but I wasn’t sure if it was true so I decided to give it some thought.
While I still am not sure if studying music has directly affected my ability to learn languages, I do know that there are skills we learn doing certain things that can be applied to our other interests.
Music and language have been filed away in completely different parts of my brain for some time, but upon closer inspection, it seems as though they have not been entirely independent of one another.
I am still not ready to tackle the question of whether being a musician makes me a better language learner, or if being multilingual makes me a better musician. I am, however, up to the challenge of sharing how the tactics I use for studying music can effectively be applied to the study of language.
My personal opinion is that there are four skills necessary to learning a language: reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking.
The same can be said for music, and like languages, your level in each of those four skills depends completely on what your goals are.
If your goal is to perform (speak), then you have a tendency to focus on your playing (speaking), but you also need to develop your listening (comprehension). If your goal is to write music, you’ll spend a lot of time studying scores (reading) and composing (writing). Styles of music (jazz, rock, pop, classical, reggae, etc.) can also be compared to languages themselves (French, Mandarin, Russian, Tagalog) – meaning that being “fluent” in one doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be fluent in another. You have to learn each style or language on its own, but they get easier as you go because you’ve figured out a system that works for you. The analogy is rather loose, but it isn’t much of a stretch to see how the two can be compared.
To quote a similar article I wrote on my music website, Teen Jazz:
“We need to learn to listen. Listening allows us to perform and interact with other musicians. It also allows us to learn new things from what we hear around us.”
— As language learners we also need to learn to listen. It’s an important skill because without comprehension, we cannot understand other speakers and therefore cannot interact with them.
“We need to learn to speak. We need to find our voices on our instruments. We need to play a melody in a way that it becomes our own. We need to take the music vocabulary we’ve picked up and apply it to new contexts much like a language learner needs to take the words they’ve learned and construct them into sentences that reflect what they want to say.”
— As I said above, much like a musician needs to take the music vocabulary they’ve learnt and internalize it so that they can use it when needed, a language learner needs to internalize the words and phrases they’ve learnt to use them to communicate and speak.
“We need to learn to read. To truly be successful as a musician, it helps to know how to read music. Or at the very least, chord charts.”
— You don’t necessarily have to know how to read music to be a successful musician. There are plenty of jazz, rock, pop, and blues musicians who don’t know how to read music and they’ve made great careers for themselves despite this. Language learners also don’t necessarily have to know how to read to be able to communicate in a language, but it doesn’t hurt to have that skill. Especially if you want to get to an advanced level.
“We need to learn to write. Even if you don’t write your own music, there may come a time when you need write your own charts or arrangements. Having the ability to write music is another tool in your toolbox and will help you build a successful career.”
— Once again, knowing how to write in a foreign language isn’t totally necessary to being able to successfully communicate, but it is another tool in your toolbox and can help you succeed in using it.
But one can go beyond drawing comparisons between the skills required to be efficient in both music and language. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, you can directly apply the study habits and skills you learn with one to the other.
Here are just a few ways studying music has made me a better language music learner:
1. There are two ways to listen.
You can listen passively – the music plays in the background, but you aren’t paying much attention to it. Or your language podcast is on, but you aren’t paying attention to it.This type of listening is purely for enjoyment, maybe immersion, but it isn’t doing a lot for your ability as a musician or as a language learner. If you really want to make the most of the time you spend listening to music, you need to listen actively.
You need to sit down in front of your speakers, or tuck yourself into your chair with your headphones on and give the music or the language that you’re learning 100% of your attention. You need to engage with it.
2. Watch movies with subtitles.
In music, this is playing along to records with transcriptions. When the material is too far above your level, it’s okay to cheat a bit and use a transcription as a guide to help you get where you want to be. Just like it’s okay to rely on subtitles when you’re watching a movie or television show in your target language when it’s still too far above your head.
Don’t rely on your “subtitles” or “transcriptions” for too long though, or you’ll find that you grow dependent upon them and stop using your ears.
3. A little bit everyday makes a big difference.
It’s better to study for a short period of time every day consistently than it is to practice or study for several hours one day and then not practice or study for the next few days afterwards. The consistent work does a lot more for your endurance and ability as a player or learner than binging and purging your studies does.
4. It’s always better with others.
Just like working on music on your own has its limits, learning a language alone in your room can also prevent you from reaching your full potential as a speaker. It’s no fun to have a conversation with yourself when you’re learning a language.
With music, it’s no fun spending all your time working alone. It’s sometimes best to get out and perform with other musicians, getting experience on stage, interacting with other performers, and enjoying their companionship. It’s a win-win. You get to practice your instrument and make friends.
The same is true for language. Endless independent study is great, but it’s even better to go out and use the language you’re learning in the real world. Just like it can be a real boost to you progress in music, interacting with other speakers or musicians can do wonders for your ability. So go out and speak your language and make friends!
I also recommend hiring a tutor. Language exchange partners are great, but it’s even better to have someone who’s attention is strictly on helping you improve in your target language.
5. Writing things down can help you internalize them.
Taking a moment to write down the things you’re working on can help you better internalize the information. Just like teaching helps us understand what we’re doing better by the very nature of having to explain it, writing the information you’ve learned down helps you maintain it. You may take this as far as actually writing down the solo you transcribe in music, or it may be something as simple as just taking notes about what you’ve spent your last iTalki session on so that you know where to pick things up the next time you sit down to work on the language you’re studying. Just like I advise my music students to keep a practice journal, I really encourage you to keep a notebook with all of your language notes and questions.
So there you have it. What about you? What things do you study outside of language that have helped you become a better learner either directly or indirectly? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.