The relationship between music and "all the phenomena of Nature" was already discussed in ancient Greece by Pythagoras. In the past decades, many studies have proven that listening to background music while learning a foreign language can increase the possibilities of retrieving what is being learnt. Although no study really demonstrates music causes language per se nor vice-versa, many of them talk about endless overlapping areas between both of them. As John Corry phrased it, words and music are "inseparably married". Although his statement referred to Cole Porter's work for the show "In Performance at the White House", its meaning can be extended and applied to (almost) all musical pieces. Admittedly, many will argue that music does not need lyrics to exist, but what few can deny is that it fine-tunes our brain making it ready to absorb the stimuli around it, language included.
And how exactly does it improve our learning chances?, you may wonder.
According to most researchers, the majority of us use the left side of our brain (the hemisphere generally connected to Maths) when studying. On the other hand, while listening to music, it is the right side of the brain (the one connected to the recognition of letters, numbers and symbols) that seems to be generally active. If both tasks are carried out at the same time, both hemispheres are being activated simultaneously, which enhances the learning process by offering more possibilities to connect the different pieces of information received by our brain.
The benefits of music when studying are nothing new. The pioneering work of Alfred A. Tomatis created a method to retrain the "conscious ear" aimed at improving auditory processing problems. The method, baptised as the "Mozart effect"1, consisted in the use of both Gregorian chant and pieces composed by Mozart as well as the voice of the patients' themselves. The exercises allowed the patient to gain a better insight of the world of sound and are used to re-educate the ear and improve the listening skills of the subject. As Tomatis said, "the ear is the true gateway to our inner world", being "the dynamo of the brain and the nervous system."
The Tomatis' Mozart effect should not be confused with the trademark named likewise. The latter is based on the findings published by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, Linda Levine and Katherine Ky. In their 1994 presentation "Music and Spatial Task Performance: A Causal Relationship", the researchers explained how several of their studies proved the facilitating effect music can have on spatial reasoning. They also pointed out that it is the highly repetitive music patterns that cause such an effect, which is not exclusive of the sonatas by Mozart, though their studies focused on the work of this composer. The sequential evolution and symmetry in certain musical pieces seems to increase the ability of the brain to access and develop patterns, which, in turn, may lead to enhance other related cognitive functions.
A well-known distinction should be recalled at this point: hearing and listening are not the same. It is possible to have a perfect hearing sense while still experiencing listening problems, which may prevent the correct decoding of the received sounds. Thanks to the use of music, consciously listening to it, foreign language students are given a chance to overcome their difficulties in comprehension and verbal reproduction of the foreign sounds. After all, we cannot forget that language, just like music, "has rhythms, nuances, inflections, and timber." In short, whether you choose to listen to Mozart or to any other music piece, the above mentioned studies as well as many others seem to conclude that, apart from being able to delight in its sound, music can improve the power of our brain to perform many tasks.
So, you know, fill your life (as well as that of your children and/or students) with music!! Not only will you be happier and more motivated while performing different tasks but you will also enhance your learning possibilities!
By the way, a wonderful website where you can train your ear while enjoying your favourite music is lyricstraining.com
1 In Why Mozart? (1991) (original title: Pourquoi Mozart?), Alfred Tomatis explained his use of Mozart compositions could boost the development of the brain by helping the ear to listen (and therefore decode and understand) better.