When listening to a song you’ve probably once wondered to yourself: “Which comes first: words or music?”

How do words and languages affect our thoughts? We certainly react to unfamiliar words (especially those of foreign languages) differently than to those we already know.

Here’s a funny demonstration by Catherine Tate of how foreign languages can sound to us when we don’t understand them:

And this is what German sounds to some of us!

Ear Training For Music and Language

Here is an interesting fact: when you train your ear for musical purposes, it opens up for languages, too! A few days ago my sister was listening to an old song in Portuguese. I don’t speak that language, but French, Spanish and English help me to understand a lot of it. I was in the same room, and listened to the song, and to my surprise I could hear better and understand more than when the words were spoken. I don’t mean I could understand the unknown words, but I could hear the words much more clearly!

Although music can help with foreign languages and ear training opens your ear up in general, what about the other way around? What if languages can help train your ears for music, too?

In my experience, this doesn’t always work: I speak five different languages, not to count my mother tongue, yet my ear still didn’t become too good musically. But in South-East Asia, for example, there are many more individuals who have absolute pitch hearing, although most of them don’t train their ears musically. The secret is in the language: if you speak a tonal language, then your ear is naturally trained better.

Most European languages are unfortunately not tonal languages. But there are Swedish, Norwegian and a few others, and many non-European tonal languages. And of course one may use intonation in many other languages, including English, to alter the meaning of a word.

For example you can pronounce the word “really” in many ways, and you can even play with this in written form. try reading these aloud:






It’s not about pronouncing a different vowel or syllable. It’s changing the pitch of the same syllable which can change the very meaning of the word. If English was a tonal language, the different intonations “Really.”, “Really?” and “Really?!” could actually have three quite different meanings, rather than just giving different implications to the same word.

So this is how tonal languages work, and this is how they help you: you learn the pitch patterns. There can be ascending, descending, ascending and descending, “straight” (or “linear”) and others. If you really want to get deeper into this, you can watch this video in which the author uses the word “really” to explain things further:

How familiar and foreign words can train your ears

We’ve seen that tonal languages use different tones (or “pitches”) and these affect the meaning of the words. If you mess up your tone you might turn a sentence like “I want to visit grandma” into “I want to eat grandma”! This can happen due only to the pitch of your voice, even if it’s the same combination of letters: suppose that word sounds like “gobu” in our imaginary language. If you pronounce the “o” vowel using one pitch (let’s suppose it sounds like the note G4) then you have one word. If you pronounce the same “gobu” word, but your vowel “o” is with a lower pitch (say it sounds like the note C4), then you’ve got a totally different word. This could be the difference between it meaning “visit” and “eat”. This is not an actual word, but this example can help you understand better how tonal languages work.

The importance of pitch for the meaning of words means that your ear really gets worked out by speaking and understanding tonal languages. But even if you don’t speak a tonal language (yet), the use of pitch for intonation is there anyway, and if you pay attention to this you can make good use of that too to train your ear! You could even challenge yourself: make a list of some words you use often (e.g. “cool”, “good”, “OK”, “awesome”…) and then analyze how you and others use that word. What sort of intonations do you use? What intonations do others use? How could you expand your “intonational vocabulary” with those same words?

Armenian Examples

Now you’re going to hear me saying some words and short sentences in my own language: Armenian. As a fun experiment, try decoding these few Armenian sounds and guess what they might convey based only on how they sound. Note that I’m assuming you don’t actually speak Armenian!

I’d love to read your comments re how it all sounds to you: Elvish? Parseltongue (like Harry Potter spoke)? Black Speech (the language of Mordor) or Nazgûl (as Sauron spoke) from The Lord of the Rings?

Note: Armenian is not a tonal language. You are still training your ear by listening to the intonations though. Some of these intonations may sound new and unfamiliar to you.

After you’ve had a listen and tried to guess the meanings, you can check the end of this article for the real explanations.

train your ear for languages

How to sharpen your ear for language and for music

I’ve spoken about using intonation already, and about expanding your “intonational vocabulary”. This will actually help you in several ways: your pronunciation will get clearer which can help you with both singing and with clear communication skills, and whatever you have to say will sound more interesting.

I’ve been offering informal training sessions on this for four years now. I’ve won some hearts (and even some prizes) with my speeches and with a written article internationally in Georgia and France.

My toolkit includes: sincerity, positive thinking habits, knowledge, body language and… intonation!

It’s always boring to listen to someone who speaks with the same intonation for minutes on end. You find you just cannot listen to that voice any more after a few minutes, even if the topic interests you. It doesn’t matter if the person has a low, dark pitch or a high, ringing pitch (though the second one can make you more uncomfortable).

When I discovered this bad habit in my own speaking, I started actively playing around with the colours of my voice, and with the intonation. I have a high-pitched voice, and I use my head voice more even while speaking, so I integrated the chest register too. I started playing with the intonation, the rhythm (sometimes a little fast, and sometimes throwing some short pauses or slowing things down), the dynamics (sometimes loud, sometimes quiet) and I also started using my body and gestures (adopting some which I liked) and it all paid off really well.

I just gave you more tools of the trade for singing, for public speaking and for successful communication. These will help you immensely in all areas of your life: competitions, auditions, interviews, personal and professional relationships, teaching and more. Did you catch them all?

  • Pitch (registers)
  • Intonation
  • Rhythm
  • Dynamics
  • Body language, including facial expressions, hands, and your whole body

Even if you still hate your voice when you hear it recorded, do it more often and look at yourself too. If you didn’t sing in front of the mirror or the camera, you may at first get a good laugh from how you distort your facial expressions while singing! When I first did it, my reaction was “Gosh, was there a dog who bit my foot? Or maybe I forgot to use the restroom before the session, even though I really needed to?”.

So, you can see that whether a language is tonal or not, the pitches we use for words can have a major impact on their exact meaning. Try to pay closer attention to this in your day-to-day life and use language to train your ears. You might be surprised at how it ends up helping you in music too!

Explanations of the Armenian examples

  1. The word “loorj” means “seriously”, and in the first file it’s said by someone who has just heard some news and they’re inquiring whether it’s true.
  2. The same word, but with a different, more friendly, informal, gay tone, e.g. when hearing happier news.
  3. The person sounds scared, and they’d say it like this in very grave situations. Or, if they’re teenagers – whatever they discuss seems to be the gravest of all things!
  4. Now this tonal variation is quite interesting. It is present in Armenian, when you start with one pitch and vary it during the word. It goes up and down. Can you hear it? This may convey sarcasm, disbelief or temptation.
  5. The sound “IYAAAH” is not a word, but more of an interjection, like the English “Whoa!” We utter this sound often when someone is talking nonsense or is offering something unacceptable (e.g. very low remuneration for your work).
  6. The same sound, but more distressed. We’d use this sound when someone is very rude and getting physical (e.g. harassment).

I hope you enjoyed this exercise!