Memory Tip #11: Learn Through Music

Song is the ultimate structuring device for language. In fact, if you’ve ever learned musical theory, or learned to play an instrument, you will have most likely noticed the striking similarities between music and spoken language. Both languages have rhythm, flow, tempo, pauses, emotions conveyed, and both can be spoken, listened, written, and read.

Why is music so much easier for the brain to remember? In “Moonwalking with Einstein,” author Joshua Foer proposes this explanation:

Finding patterns and structure in information is how our brains extract meaning from the world, and putting words to music and rhyme are a way of adding extra levels of pattern and structure to language. It’s the reason Homeric bards sang their epic oral poems, the reason that the Torah is marked up with little musical notations, and the reason we teach kids the alphabet in a song and not as twenty-six individual letters.

And there is no doubt that music helps our brain finding patterns and structure in information, because what music does, in part, is help us memorizing right to left. What I mean by this is, well we all know about left brain and right brain functionality. Left brain, it’s more analytic. The right brain, it’s more creative. So what we need to do is think about how we can get creative when we’re trying to memorize something which is complex. Mnemonics, of course, is an amazing tool at our disposal which does exactly that. However, music should not be forgotten, especially if you really enjoy music and you enjoy singing. To serve as an example, K-pop (or Korean pop) is hugely popular throughout Asia, and a lot of people in this part of the world actually learn the language through music. It works for them because that’s what they like. They can remember words and phrases almost effortlessly. I’ve also had a co-worker in the past, originally from Argentina, who learned Brazilian Portuguese flawlessly through music, because she enjoyed Brazilian music so much.

Polyglot Susanna Zaraysky, author of the book “Language is Music”, also talks extensively about the benefits of music in language learning. Susanna argues that to truly get into the groove of a language, you have to establish a psychological and physiological bond with the musicality of your target language. She emphasizes that you have to let yourself “resonate with the language,” both physiologically—which is about the frequency or vibrations of sound waves as they are transmitted through your throat—and psychologically, which means you have to like hearing yourself speak that language. This latter point is important; a reason why many people fail to learn a foreign language properly, or to gain a proper accent in the target language, is because they are unwilling (consciously or not) to sound like someone outside their home group.

Indeed, Susanna emphasizes the importance of music in developing a better pronunciation when learning a foreign language. Besides pronunciation, she points out that it will be very difficult to learn a language or actually enjoy speaking it if you don’t like the way it sounds. I wholeheartedly agree with this. I have heard many, many people complain about how they feel Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, or otherwise) sounds “annoying” or “rude”. I personally never gave too much thought to it, but Mandarin did sound rather funny to me until I actually began learning it and got used to hearing and speaking the sounds. Idahosa Ness, who created and actively teaches the “Mimic Method,” a method which instructs students the “Flow” of a target language by teaching them to sing song lyrics with a perfect accent, similarly talks about the importance of being comfortable with foreign sounds. “I identify a lack of physical comfort with foreign sounds the main reason why most people struggle to learn foreign languages,” he says.

Dominic O’Brien, eight time world memory champion, also talks about the importance of music in aiding memory. “Think how a piece of music can make a memory more vivid (often it triggers more emotional feedback),” he says. Indeed, music conveys emotions, and if you remember Memory Tip #1, you’ll know that studies have repeatedly shown that emotions can double the amount of information you can remember, a psychological effect known as depth of processing.

Do you enjoy listening to music? Do you like singing from time to time? Think about using music as an aide to your memory; it can be a very powerful tool, and it will make learning and memorizing a lot more fun too. As an added bonus, if you’re learning a foreign language, many experts and teachers, such as Susanna Zaraysky and Idahosa Ness, will tell you that it can tremendously help your pronunciation.

This is Memory Tip #11 out of 12. To access additional tips in this series, click on any of the following links: Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip# 4, Tip #5, Tip #6, Tip #7, Tip #8, Tip #9, Tip #10, Tip #12

By Lingholic

2 thoughts on “Memory Tip #11: Learn Through Music”

  1. I had never thought of using music as an additional way to help me learn a language. Do you have any advice or resources on how someone would go about making a decent playlist in a language?

  2. Wow, very glad I found your blog. Thanks for the great information, radiolingua is a new one for me as well.

    I’ve just been using Anki daily and listening to pimsleur lessons in downtime. They’re not fantastic but they are much better than the other tapes I’ve heard.

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