MIT Professor to Discuss ‘Identity Thesis for Language and Music’ Oct. 14

October 14, 2014
David Pesetsky

David Pesetsky

The linguistic interface between music and language is the subject of an upcoming presentation in the College of Arts and Sciences.

David Pesetsky, a world-renowned linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will discuss “Language and Music: Same Structures, Different Building Blocks” on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 7:15 p.m. in Maxwell Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact organizer Jaklin Kornfilt at 315-443-5375 and

Pesetsky’s lecture is co-sponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor (made possible by an award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation); the interdisciplinary Linguistic Studies Program in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (LLL); and the Syracuse University Humanities Center.

“Professor Pesetsky will offer a linguist’s perspective on the kinship between music and language,” says Kornfilt, professor of linguistics in LLL. “His lecture will focus on the idea that, although words and pitches are different, the ways they combine are the same.”

Pesetsky’s lecture is one of several this semester at Syracuse, where he is the Humanities Corridor’s Mellon Visiting Collaborator.

On Tuesday, Pesetsky will discuss his collaboration with Jonah Katz, a linguistics professor at West Virginia University. Both professors argue that the syntax of tonal music is identical to the structure of language—something they call the “Identity Thesis for Language and Music.”

“They assert that the formal differences between language and music are a consequence of the differences in their fundamental building blocks,” Kornfilt continues. “But what language and music do with these building blocks is identical.”

An expert in syntax, morphology and Russian language, Pesetsky chairs the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, where he also serves as the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics and the Cecil H. Green (1923) MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

Also an accomplished violinist, Pesetsky is the author of three groundbreaking books on syntactic theory; and numerous articles about Universal Grammar, a theory positing that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the brain. Prior to joining MIT’s faculty in 1988, he held faculty positions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Southern California.