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How Does Musical Training Improve Language Skills?

Piano lessons improve kids' processing of pitch and speech, a new study finds.

Musical training around the age of five has a unique ability to enhance kindergartners’ speech perception and language skills according to a new study contributed by Robert Desimone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This paper, “Piano Training Enhances the Neural Processing of Pitch and Improves Speech Perception in Mandarin-Speaking Children,” was published online ahead of print June 25 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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First author of this study is Yun Nan. She is also group leader of the Music Cognition Group at State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, International Data Group (IDG)/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Beijing Normal University.

One reason the MIT-affiliated research team decided to perform this study in China is that the teachers at a school in Beijing were particularly interested in exploring the value of extracurricular music lessons in comparison to additional reading lessons.

Despite many schools slashing budgets for musical programs, the school in Beijing where this study was conducted is firmly committed to musical training and continues to offer piano lessons to students. The researchers are hopeful that the positive findings of their latest research will be a clarion call for educators around the globe to incorporate musical training into early-educational learning whenever possible.

For this study, 74 kindergarten-age children were randomly divided into three different groups for six months of (1) musical training on a piano for 45 minutes, three times a week, (2) an active control group that participated in extra reading lessons for the same amount of time, or (3) a “no-contact” control group that didn’t receive either intervention.

After six months, the piano-training group displayed unique advantages over the other two groups in their ability to discriminate consonant-based words and an enhanced ability to identify changes in both speaking tone and musical pitch. Enhanced neural sensitivities to musical pitch appear to be the key to better discrimination between spoken words and enhanced language skills in the children who took piano lessons.

In a side-by-side comparison, six months of piano training, three times a week, facilitated certain aspects of language development slightly better than extra reading instruction.

Interestingly, all three groups showed equal improvement on general cognitive measures that included IQ tests, working memory, and attention span. This aspect of the study suggests that six months of musical training around the age of five does not improve overall cognitive functions.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has found correlations between musical training and enhanced language skills. However, until now, it was unclear if music lessons improved language proficiency by boosting general cognitive ability or if playing an instrument improved language processing in other specialized ways. The latest findings elucidate that the ability to distinguish different pitches may explain how musical training improves speech processing and language skills in children.

Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, was the senior author of this paper. In a statement, he said: “There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognizing differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading. That means schools could invest in music and there will be generalization to speech sounds. It’s not worse than giving extra reading to the kids, which is probably what many schools are tempted to do — get rid of the arts education and just have more reading.”

The researchers also used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor brain activity as children in the three different groups listened to a series of tones in a different pitch. Notably, the piano-playing children displayed more robust brain activity when they heard different pitches. These findings suggest that a greater sensitivity to pitch differences is what helped the children who took piano lessons better distinguish different words, according to Desimone.

Although musical training appears to improve speech-sound processing via better pitch differentiation, more research is needed to pinpoint the exact brain mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. In future research, Desimone plans to do a deeper dive into specific neurological changes associated with musical training.

Musical Training in Childhood May Have Lifelong Language Benefits

In 2015, another study on the language-related benefits of musical training reported that children who took musical training lessons before the age of 14 — and continued these lessons for at least a decade — experienced less decay in their speech-listening skills much later in life. As the authors explain, "Musicianship in early life is associated with pervasive changes in brain function and enhanced speech-language skills." This study was conducted at Baycrest Health Sciences Rotman Research Institute (RRI) in Canada and published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

"Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too," lead author Gavin Bidelman, who is currently an associate professor at the University of Memphis, said in a statement.

In the study abstract Bidelman and co-author Claude Alain conclude, "Our findings imply that robust neuroplasticity conferred by musical training is not restricted by age and may serve as an effective means to bolster speech listening skills that decline across the lifespan.”

Hopefully, the latest findings on the immediate and prolonged benefits of musical training during childhood will motivate policymakers, educators, and parents to make musical training a part of their school-age children's weekly activities whenever possible.


Yun Nan, Li Liu, Eveline Geiser, Hua Shu, Chen Chen Gong, Qi Dong, John D. E. Gabrieli, and Robert Desimone. "Piano Training Enhances the Neural Processing of Pitch and Improves Speech Perception in Mandarin-Speaking Children." PNAS (Published online ahead of print: June 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1808412115

Gavin M. Bidelman and Claude Alain. "Musical Training Orchestrates Coordinated Neuroplasticity in Auditory Brainstem and Cortex to Counteract Age-Related Declines in Categorical Vowel Perception." The Journal of Neuroscience (First Published: January 21, 2015) DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3292-14.2015

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