Music and Language

I have always been musically inclined. My mother would motivate (read ‘bribe’) me with music and my day always started with the radio. As an educator, I persuaded (read ‘harassed’) my Supervisor to allow me to play music in the background when my students were not doing serious academic classwork. As a mother, I played music to my newborn even whilst he slept, much to the bafflement of my in-laws. Like many of us, music, is my muse.

Interestingly, the highlight of this past month has been administering doses of music into two very different curriculums – one formal pre-primary school program and the other non-formal language learning program.

Music as a primal and universal medium of learning/communicating is well archived. In fact, Charles Darwin speculated that early humans had already developed musical ability prior to language and were using it “to charm each other.” Fascination with music cognition took a whole new meaning when the Bulgarian psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov developed Suggestopedia as an affective teaching tool seeped in music. More recently, Aniruddh Patel, in his interdisciplinary tour de force Music, Language, and the Brain elucidated how the brain processes music and language both bridging the left brain and right brain divide. One can find anecdotal evidence of symbiotic relationship between music and language acquisition in Gabrielle Giffords who has been successfully using music therapy to regain language after brain damage.

Given the universality of music as a language, first language learning begins with folk rhymes and lullabies and many well thought out music-centric language learning programs have been designed to enable foreign language learners in language acquisition. Since both music and language hinge on rhyme and rhythm, pitch and pace, texture and timbre, this synergy between language learning and music is natural. So while in the process of growing up, we lose most of the hundred languages that we are born with, and the verbal language becomes predominant, music is reduced to be an auxiliary language.

Lately, engulfed by work and parenting, music had become an intermittent interlude. Surreptitiously, as if struck by partial pedagogical amnesia, I wandered the alleys of curriculum review/design deprived of music. That was till a month ago, when I worked briefly with Dr Robert Hagan, to explore possibility of using music and emotional intelligence to teach English as a part of blended learning program for underprivileged run by AAM Foundation.

All the planning and preparation happened over a cup of coffee and a quick visit to the music store. Given the dynamics of the program and profile of the target audience, we decided to use We Are the World to teach nuances of English language to a group of first generation learners, in the age range of 12-20 years, who had been enrolled in our program for over 2 months at the Govindpuri center in South Delhi. Armed with a boom-box and lyrics of the song, we were greeted by a very excited and anticipative group of youngsters at the center. Like a seasoned craftsman, Bob started weaving his musical magic effortlessly and undeterred by cultural barriers. Initially, students struggled with comprehending the accent. But soon they were singing along with him uninhibited. Those who had limited exposure to the language demonstrated monk-like focus as they kept up with the group. Slowly, Bob injected calculated doses of vocabulary, word association, synthesis and analysis. As they grew more comfortable with the song and Bob’s accent, students were led atop the peak of Bloom Taxonomy where they rewrote the lyrics (both in poetry and prose) of the song, meaningful and relevant in their context. This resulted in poetic effusion (yes, in English), the quality (and quantity) of which left all of us suitably impressed. This musical intervention, an auditory feast for our students, opened up the greater global picture of English language for our first generation learners. Additionally, it has made students hungry for more such experiences and also brought music back into my pedagogical paradigm.

Thank you for the music, Bob! The rhythm did get to us and we intend keeping it for lessons to come.


  1. I am humbled by my experience working with such great educators. The process of teaching and learning is forever evolving. As we continue to collaborate on best practices, students will continue to succeed. Thank you Payal for your kind words. You and your organization are doing some great works, which will positively impact many students for years to come.

  2. Some exceptional views regarding music and language has totally impressed me indeed! It's good to learn the importance of music in learning development. I've seen music is not only helps learning but also helps human mental stress healing process as well. Thanks.

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