Comparison between Language and Music


Address for correspondence: Mireille Besson, Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences Cognitives. CNRS-CRNS, 31-Chemin Joseph Aiguier, 13402-Marseille Cedex 20, France. Voice: +33-491-164-305; fax: +33-491-774-969;


Abstract: Similarities and differences between language and music processing are examined from an evolutionary and a cognitive perspective. Language and music cannot be considered single entities; they need to be decomposed into different component operations or levels of processing. The central question concerns one of the most important claims of the generative grammar theory, that is, the specificity of language processing: do the computations performed to process language rely on specific linguistic processes or do they rely on general cognitive principles? Evidence from brain imaging results is reviewed, noting that this field is currently in need of metanalysis of the available results to precisely evaluate this claim. A series of experiments, mainly using the event-related brain potentials method, were conducted to compare different levels of processing in language and music. Overall, results favor language specificity when certain aspects of semantic processing in language are compared with certain aspects of melodic and harmonic processing in music. By contrast, results support the view that general cognitive principles are involved when aspects of syntactic processing in language are compared with aspects of harmonic processing in music. Moreover, analysis of the temporal structure led to similar effects in language and music. These tentative conclusions must be supported by other brain imaging results to shed further light on the spatiotemporal dynamics of the brain structure-function relationship.