Got rhythm? You can learn languages and reading better

The surprising link between music, rhythmic abilities and language skills; can music training help you learn to read?
September 18, 2013

Mechanical metronome (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Northwestern University researchers have found biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to the neural encoding of speech sounds.

The study has significant implications for reading, according to Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The study demonstrates that accurate beat-keeping involves synchronization between the parts of the brain responsible for hearing as well as movement.

The experiment

To investigate the relationship between beat-keeping and auditory processing, 124 Chicago high school students visited Kraus’s lab and were given two tests.

In the first, they were asked to listen to a metronome and tap their finger along to it on a special tapping pad. Tapping accuracy was computed based on how closely their taps aligned in time to the tick-tock of the metronome.

Measuring the accuracy of tapping to a metronome rhythm (top: metronome sound: bottom: auditory brainstem response electrical response) (credit: Adam Tierney et al./Journal of Neuroscience)

In a “brainwave test,” the students were fitted with electrodes measuring the consistency of their brain response to a repeated syllable.

Across the population, the more accurate the adolescents were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brain response was to the speech syllable.

Beat-keeping requires coordination of hearing and movement

“This is supported biologically,” Kraus says. “The brainwaves we measured originate from a biological hub of auditory processing with reciprocal connections with the motor-movement centers. An activity that requires coordination of hearing and movement is likely to rely on solid and accurate communication across brain regions.”

Accurate beat-keeping’s implications for reading and language skills simply make sense, according to the co-authors. “Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language,” Kraus says. “And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding.”

For example, you might slow down your speech or stress one syllable more than another to emphasize a particular point. And minute timing differences distinguish consonants, such as “b” and “p.” Hearing that timing distinction is necessary to identify the sounds with the letters that represent them.

“Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses,” says Kraus. “It may be that musical training — with its emphasis on rhythmic skills — can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read.”

Kraus, who is the Knowles Chair in Northwestern’s School of Communication and professor of neurobiology in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is conducting longitudinal (long-term) investigations that look directly at the effects of music training by measuring beat synchronization, response consistency, reading, and other language skills in children as they progress through music instruction from year to year.

References:

  • Adam Tierney, Nina Kraus, The Ability to Move to a Beat Is Linked to the Consistency of Neural Responses to Sound, Journal of Neuroscience, 2013