Music, Language, and the Brain

  • Aniruddh D. Patel
Oxford University Press: 2008. 528 pp. $59.95 9780195123753 | ISBN: 978-0-1951-2375-3

This book is an intellectual tour de force, raising many more issues than recent popular works by, for example, Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin. Not one for the bus, beach or bathtub, Music, Language, and the Brain requires focused engagement, but its rewards are rich. Aniruddh Patel offers a thorough analysis of music cognition and its relation to language, and outlines an ambitious and innovative research programme that deepens our understanding of cognition in general.

Music and speech share basic sound elements, and Patel starts by highlighting the similarities and differences between how auditory signals work. The book then delves into five topics: rhythm, melody, syntax, meaning and evolution. Each topic is examined within the context of music and language, to see how key cognitive processes overlap or diverge. By evaluating the latest empirical evidence, the author proposes further studies to test or extend previous results — experimentation, he says, is crucial in moving this field forward. Clearly, Patel has particular theories that he favours, but he describes fairly the ideas of others. The book is admirably clear in stating what has been done, and what needs to be done.

The belief that there are fundamental similarities in the processing of music and language is largely intuitive and worth testing. Both have been argued to be unique to humans. The book emphasizes the particulate nature of music and language — both assembled from discrete elements — and suggests that these two domains may share a set of brain structures. By contrast, studies of brain lesion data (from patients with deficits that follow specific brain damage) and brain imaging results are also consistent with a view that music and language processing are, at least in part, segregated.

Patel thinks that there are more general, perhaps computational, links between the two. For example, when discussing rhythm, he proposes that the processing of non-periodic signals is similar in both music and speech. In the section on syntax, he argues that the brain uses similar neural resources to integrate the hierarchical organization of music and language. When discussing evolutionary and developmental similarities, the notion of 'beat-based rhythm processing' emerges as a crucial feature that may underlie music and speech.

Patel's perspective is laudably cross-linguistic and multicultural, citing extensive work from non-Indo-European languages and non-Western-based musical systems. On the website accompanying the book (, Patel provides stimulating sound and video examples that clarify the phenomena described in each chapter.

Music, Language, and the Brain is much more than a textbook by one of the field's most influential practitioners. Each chapter can serve as a stand-alone monograph, and can be read at many levels. There is enough clarity for the general reader to follow the lines of argument, while the specialized reader will discover Patel's sophisticated and well-researched positions. Ideal for students of music cognition and language, the book outlines numerous experiments and hypotheses — many unusual — that draw together psychology and neurobiology.

If one can criticize anything, it is that Patel's discussion of the neurobiological foundations of auditory cognition is less nuanced and inspirational than his treatment of behavioural research. That said, we know little about the neuronal bases of complex psychological phenomena. Our understanding of auditory cognition is still mostly informed by behaviourally based psychological research, and in that domain, Patel's discussion is second to none.

In this definitive analysis of music cognition and its relationship to language, Patel gives us a work of exceptional scholarship and clarity. Much needed, it elevates the discussion to a level that these exciting areas merit.