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Musical Training May Improve Brain’s Language Skills

Neuroscientists link ability to keep a beat with better reading and writing.

Neuroscientists at Northwestern University have made a surprising link between music, rhythmic abilities and language skills. People who have a better sense of rhythm and can move to a beat show more consistent brain responses to speech than those with less rhythm, according to a study published in the September 18, 2013 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

The findings suggest that musical training could possibly sharpen the brain's response to language. This is the first study to provide biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to the neural encoding of speech sounds.

Scientists have known for years that moving to a steady beat requires synchronization between the parts of the brain responsible for hearing and movement. In the current study, Professor Nina Kraus, PhD, and Adam Tierney, PhD, at the Northwestern University Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory examined the relationship between the ability to keep a beat and the brain's response to sound.

This discovery has significant implications for literacy and reading ability, according to Nina Kraus. Previous research has established a link between reading ability and neural response consistency. "By directly linking auditory responses with beat-keeping ability, we have closed the triangle," Kraus says.

Almost every day there seems to be a new study revealing that primitive brain regions of our nervous system like the cerebellum and brainstem – traditionally considered to be “non-thinking” – are actually involved in complex cognitive processes.

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 synchronized with the tick-tock of the metronome.

In a second test, the researchers used a technique called electroencephalography (EEG) to record brainwaves from a major brain hub for sound processing as the teens listened to the synthesized speech sound "da" repeated periodically over a 30-minute period. The researchers then calculated how similarly the nerve cells in this region responded each time the "da" sound was repeated.

"Across this population of adolescents, the more accurate they were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brains' response to the 'da' syllable was," Kraus said. Because previous studies show a link between reading ability and beat-keeping ability as well as reading ability and the consistency of the brain's response to sound, Kraus explained.

Your Cerebellum Keeps the Beat

In The Athlete’s Way I have a section of the book (p. 96) titled “The Cerebellum Keeps Rhythm and Time.” Your cerebellum is in charge of all timing and rhythm in your body. The cerebellum operates an internal timing system, that fine tunes the precise timing sequences of everything we do... from bringing a forkful of food from your plate to your mouth to hitting a baseball. The need for precise timing extends beyond motor control of our bodies – it also coordinates the timing of our lips, tongue and vocal chords. Interestingly, patients with cerebellar lesions are impaired when trying to judge the duration of a sound.

The cerebellum is not only a timekeeper but is also a metronome that uses sight, sound, and proprioception to produce rhythm, tempo, cadence in aerobic sport, speech, dance, and even coitus. From pouring a glass of water to typing on a computer, precise timing, down to the thousandth of a second is key to the brain’s control of movement.

The cerebellum is responsible for this internal timekeeping and allows you to predict the velocity of an incoming hockey puck or return a 140-mph tennis serve. It also allows your lips and tongue to make minute changes in timing to create consonants, such as "b" and "p." Learning to hear and pick up on that timing distinction is necessary to identify the sounds with the letters that represent them, according to researchers at the Northwestern Auditory Lab.

The Northwestern study found that accurate beat-keeping involves the synchronization between the parts of the brain responsible for hearing as well as movement. Where previous research investigations focused on the motor half of the equation, Kraus and co-author Adam Tierney also looked at the auditory component.

When I was growing up, The Electric Company had a series of vignettes in which words were sounded out by two speaking heads in silhouette. In light of this new research, it is clear that these clips are effectively teaching the coordinated rhythm required for language and understanding. Do you remember these vignettes? Here's a short clip for how to sound out "pr" with links to others.

For Stutterers: Rhythm and Singing Reduces a Stammer

Singer and songwriter Carly Simon stuttered as a child. As a six-year-old her mother taught her to tap her feet on the floor while tapping her hand on her thigh as she learned to say things at the dinner table like, “Please pass the water.”

In a fun interview, Tavis Smiley and Carly Simon both share stories of how they used rhythm and cadence to overcome their stammers. Please take a few minutes to watch the brief interview here. As you watch the clip pay attention to the hand gestures and gesticulation Tavis Smiley uses as he emulates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech cadence.

Many recent studies have shown that ‘speaking with our hands’ helps synchronize brain hemispheres and create a rhythm that creates fluidity of ideas and articulation during conversations. "Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language," Kraus says. "And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding."

Nina Kraus, has said that, “Humans and songbirds” are the only creatures “that automatically feel the beat” of a song. She said, the human heart wants to synchronize to music, the legs want to swing, metronomically, to a beat. “Our bodies,” Dr. Kraus concluded, “are made to be moved by music and move to it.”

In a "brainwave test," the students in Kraus’ study 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.

"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."

Please take a few moments to watch this short video of Nina Kraus explaining how musical sound waves translate directly from our auditory brainstem into correlating brain waves. Music enters your nervous system through your auditory brainstem.

Conclusion: Music Training Improves Language Skills and Understanding

"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."

John Iversen, PhD, who studies how the brain processes music at the University of California, San Diego, and was not involved with this study, noted that the findings raise the possibility that musical training may have important impacts on the brain. "This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language," he said.

If you’d like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: “The Neuroscience of Madonna’s Enduring Success”, “Human Babies Rely on Primitive Reflexes to Learn Language”, “Gesturing Engages All Four Brain Hemispheres”, “Reading, Writing, and Physical Activity Boost Brainpower”, “How Is the Cerebellum Linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders” and “The Neuroscience of Speaking With Your Hands.”

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