Can You Be Bimusical?

Can You Be Bimusical?The benefits of bilingualism have become well known thanks to a wealth of work by linguists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, expertly chronicled on Psychology Today by François Grosjean’s blog Life as a Bilingual.  People fluent in more than one language show improvements in executive function, for example, and more resistance to the onset of .

For even a casual music listener, these benefits raise an interesting question: might there be a condition parallel to bilingualism in the domain of music? Can you be bimusical?

In the domain of language, comprehension and production expertise is widespread; bilinguals, then, can both understand and speak two languages. In music, however, comprehension expertise is more widespread than production expertise – more people can understand and enjoy music than can create it themselves. A definition of bimusicalism, then, might require not the ability to perform two systems of music but the ability to understand two systems of music. 

This definition raises a puzzling question, though – what determines the boundaries between musical systems? Are hip hop and jazz different musical systems, such that a person capable of forming appropriate expectations and making expressive sense of both should be considered bimusical? Or to count as different musical systems, should the styles rely on different scalar vocabularies and tunings?

In some early research exploring the notion of bimusicalism, we used three groups of participants: people who’d grown up in Chicago without exposure to Indian classical music; people who’d grown up in rural villages in the state of Bihar in India without exposure to Western classical music; and people who’d grown up in Indian families in Chicago and enjoyed exposure to both Western and Indian classical music – candidates for bimusicalism. 

The first group showed better recognition memory for Western classical excerpts. The second group showed better recognition memory for Indian classical excerpts. The last group, the bimusicals, performed equally well for Western and Indian excerpts. Tension judgments in response to melodies, an index of affective response, showed the same pattern. Exposure to two systems of music had indeed resulted in dual mental and affective sensitivities – a form of bimusicalism.

We also used fMRI to look at the neural underpinnings of this phenomenon. Bimusicals used different neural resources to distinguish between one musical system and the other, and demonstrated a more complex behavioral-neural relationship. 

Given these studies, we can now infer that bimusicalism exists — but it is challenging to dig deeper. One of the reasons bilingualism can be studied so thoroughly is that monolinguals exist, allowing for a comparative case. Monomusicalism may actually be less common, given the rapid dissemination of music across borders made possible by modern technology, making bimusicalism more difficult to study.

Even so, there is much to explore.  If fluency in two languages creates cognitive advantages, what perks might bimusicalism confer? Do you listen to types of music that are different enough they truly feel like separate systems? Are you bimusical?


Wong, P.C.M., Chan, A.H.D., Roy, A., & Margulis, E.H. (2011). The Bimusical Brain is not Two Monomusical Brains in One: Evidence from Musical Affective Processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Wong, P.C.M., Roy, A.K., & Margulis, E.H. (2009). Bimusicalism: The Implicit Dual Enculturation of Cognitive and Affective Systems. Music Perception, 27, 81-88.

Elizabeth Margulis is Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.


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