The scientific reason why singers have the gift of the tongue


What is the difference between Mozart and Pavarotti? Well, one was a child prodigy and songwriter who systematically learned the rules of music from an early age – the other a perfect expert in mimicry.

Singers have a gift for foreign languages, especially when it comes to pronunciation and accent because, like parrots, they imitate what they hear. This is something that Pavarotti, who could not read sheet music, did with his opera singing.

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

Studies show that Heschl’s gyrus, a type of ridge on the surface of the brain that contains the primary auditory cortex, plays an important role in musical ability and language skills, especially when there is a higher number of gyri. Thus, some researchers believe that, based on the structure of the brain, some were simply born to be musicians. “Speaking uses the same biological makeup as singing, so it has to be linked biologically and neurobiologically,” Reiterer explains. “It’s almost like two sides of the same coin.”

C López Ramón Y Cajal, a descendant of Santiago Ramón y Cajal – the founder of modern neurobiology – discovered that gyri form in the middle of pregnancy and continue to grow as the fetus develops, as shown in a 2019 Medical hypotheses article.

Repeating and training over time has an impact on the brain, but Reiterer says biology plays a big role as well. “You can change a lot of things by rehearsing, but something is also given in advance,” Reiterer adds. “It’s 50/50 genes and environment, and if you have a strong predisposition [musically] then you have more power mainly in your auditory zones. You can better distinguish sounds.

In Reiterer’s 2015 Frontiers in human neuroscience study, 96 participants classified as instrumentalists, singers and non-musicians were tested for their abilities to imitate a language they did not know – in this case, Hindi. His team find singers had an advantage over instrumentalists, as they surpassed them in imitating a foreign language, but singers and instrumentalists surpassed non-musicians. This research has also suggested that vocal motor training may allow singers to learn a language faster.

And when children discover music from an early age, they are able to acquire permanent neuroplasticity, wrote Nina Kraus, neuroscientist at Northwestern University and co-author Travis White-Schwoch in American scientist. At Northwestern Brainvolts laboratory, this team also discovered that the more musicians play, the more they benefit: Speech and sound processing capacity is built throughout life. Musicians exhibited better attention, more precise working memory, and better neural processing of the sound of speech as the number of years of practice increased.

Even in the early 2000s, research has suggested that long-term training in music and pitch recognition enables a person to better deal with pitch patterns of a foreign language, a concept Reiterer also explored in a Annual review of applied linguistics item published in March.

Reiterer also studied how a person’s initial fitness develops due to factors such as biological maturation, socio-cultural factors, and musical ability, to name a few, as shown in a May 2021 Neurobiology of language item.

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

So for those who use both language and music, just click.

The “Pavarottis” putting it into practice

Eli Zaelo, the first black woman in history to write and release music in Mandarin, can talk about this phenomenon. The South African singer grew up listening to discerning diaphragm artists Beyoncé and Whitney Houston, and she speaks English, Afrikaans, Tswana, Zulu and Mandarin.

“[With] singing, I don’t really have a limit, ”says Zaelo. “Once I connect with the meaning of the song, I can challenge myself to sing it. “

A musician’s ability to recognize pitch can be especially useful when learning tonal languages ​​like Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Zulu, or Punjabi, as speakers of the tonal language have a better ear for learning musical notes.

“I would say that music is the basis for me to learn languages. Once the melody comes it gets easier for me, ”she explains.

Singer-songwriter Nina Joory was motivated to learn Spanish to connect with others in the industry. “Music made me learn Spanish,” she says. “I was hungry, you know? I couldn’t wait to be part of this huge movement that is Latin music right now.

This hunger or desire to keep learning a language may be related to something researchers call the “pleasure loop” or the “compulsion loop,” which means that a person will continue to perform an action to evoke feelings. feelings of pleasure and receive the dose of dopamine it releases in the brain. In this case, language learners may have more motivation to continue, especially if they have successful experiences. “It seems that language and music make people happy at the same time,” Reiterer says. “You get a neurobiological reward for knowing things. ”

While studying at Berklee College of Music, Joory became interested in latin pop and reggaeton. With English, Portuguese and French already under her belt, the Brazilian-Swiss singer turned to her classmates for help in Spanish. About a year later, she was conversing and writing songs in Spanish, and finally release clips in the language.

Like Joory, multilingual singer Daniel Emmet is already working on his next language.

Based in Las Vegas, the classic cross The artist grew up listening to Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and Lara Fabian, who tend to sing with big “ahs”, rounded “ohs” and crisp diction. And in 2018, he competed for national recognition on America’s Got Talent. Now that he’s releasing new music, Emmet is exploring new ways to give classics a twist.

“Something I’ve always loved to do is take popular music from America and play it in a different language,” he says. “It can add new depths that maybe weren’t there before.”

Emmet believes that musicians and singers have a head start in understanding the nuances of a language. And science says he’s right. Even passive musicians who have the ability to discriminate between sounds but may not have the time or resources to practice extensively can use it to their advantage, according to Reiterer.

“From a singer’s perspective, because languages ​​are so focused on sound, it’s all vocal work,” Emmet says. “With all the hearing training that we do, I think it really gives us an unfair head start in learning a new language and connecting the dots between all of these sounds and how they work together.”

Although he sings in seven languages, Emmet says he will always be able to learn.

“I don’t know if I will one day be what others would call a common language because there is always something new to learn,” he says. “In music, you are not as good as your last show. And at tongues, I guess you’re only as good as your last conversation.

For these multilingual musicians, the language helps them see the world as they tour, produce new works, and meet other songbirds. It seems like in a world filled with rule-stickers, it pays to be a Pavarotti.


Comments are closed.