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Music As Our First Language
February 27, 2012

I was recently reading an article in Psychology Today called Music Matters by Professor in Music Cognition – Henkjan Honing. Although Professor Honing believes that music comes before language and that he “…emphasize[s] that these very early indications of musical aptitude are not in essence linguistic…” –   I believe that the first language I learned as a baby was the language of music. My first memories are of my mother singing and playing the piano. It is through her voice and those sounds that I began to feel a connection to her, and I strongly believe she reached me through music in a way mere words never could.

In the article in Daily Mail Reporter called Babies develop an ear for classical music at just 5 months of age, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience – Ross Flom, who conducted a musical study on infants says, “Infants’ discrimination of music is important because music, like speech, is communicative and a basic function of music and speech is to express meaning through emotion.”

My mother, who was originally from Ecuador, was a musician. She played the piano, guitar, organ, harp, and she sang beautifully.  Her mother (my grandmother) lived with us and she also sang and played the guitar. She always encouraged my mother to play, and for a time, as a child, I played the piano, violin, and I sang.

Holistic Baby Specialist and Dance Movement Therapist, Brigitta White* from  WholeMe! Programs states that “newborns already carry with them inherent nonverbal communication knowledge, such as recognizing your mom’s voice as a newborn.  Our first language or communication method is nonverbal.  Pre-verbal language or communication is made up of sounds, music, rhythm, body movement, body gesture, dance or measured interactive dynamics.  As an infant, you are learning about your self in the world in relation to those around you. Therefore, the style of communication from your parents, the sounds around you and how you create sounds are part of your psychological make-up.”

Sadly, my mother passed away 6 years ago (almost to the day). Very recently, I was looking through some of her things and I found a musical composition that she and her mother had composed together. It’s the sheet music with the music by my mother and the lyrics by my grandmother. Such a gift and treasure.

Family heritage musical composition

There is no doubt in my mind that music was my first language. Although I haven’t sung or played an instrument in many years, I believe my mother’s and grandmother’s musical talent are at the heart of my love for music and languages today. I look forward to carrying on their tradition of connecting and speaking through song with my own grandchildren one day.

Do you have early memories of music in your life? How do you think it shaped your language and your relationships with those who played it for you?

* Full disclosure: Brigitta White is my daughter and she did not have as much music as her first language as I did because I wasn’t as talented as my mom. But I did sing lullabies to her!

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