The Musical Ear

There is a very popular belief that musicians are “good at languages” because they have a “musical ear.” My friend and former piano teacher Peter Basquin is an accomplished concert pianist who speaks several languages. I am a pianist-turned-language teacher who also speaks several languages. Classically trained musicians in particular seem almost always to have a proficiency in more than one language.

Popular musicians, on the other hand, are not particularly known for an affinity for languages. This is the first indication that we might have to look elsewhere than in the ears of musicians for whatever it is that makes them “good at languages.” Let us first dispose of the notion that pop musicians are not so musical as classical musicians. Many pop musicians have extraordinary ears. Jazz musicians have the ability to improvise (compose music while performing), which would be impossible without an extraordinarily musical ear.

Jazz pianist Art Tatum had the respect and admiration of such classical music giants as Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once asked a bus driver to either speed up or slow down because he couldn’t sleep in B natural. These men had musical ears that rivaled those of the greatest classical musicians. Yet, they were not known for their prowess in languages other than their mother tongue, while Horowitz and Rachmaninoff could speak more than just their native language of Russian.

So, why this assumption that a musician who also has the ability to speak multiple languages is endowed with an ear that is more “musical” than most? Like most assumptions, it is a quick conclusion that is made without much thought. In the first place, as we’ve already seen, it’s the classical musicians who get this credit, and not the equally musical pop musicians. There are two very good reasons for classical musicians having the ability to speak more than one language. The first is that classical training in music always includes the study of at least one more language. For opera singers in particular, it is imperative for the execution of their repertoire.

For the second reason, I will quote my friend Peter Basquin. He and I were discussing our mutual love of languages and our ability to learn and speak them. We both agree that it has very little, if anything, to do with a “musical ear.” As Peter put it, “A musician figures out very early on that, if he wants to play that scale correctly, he has to play it a hundred times.” In other words, the same practice principals that produce a good musician also produce a good language learner. I never tire of pointing out that these principals apply to the acquisition of any skill, not just music and language.

by John DePonte


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