Rhythm and Language Abilities | Mental Health Articles

Rhythm and Language Abilities

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New research has discovered that those who can move along with musical rhythm have more consistent responses to speech than those who have trouble keeping the beat.

Following a beat is an important part of playing numerous musical instruments as well as busting some moves on the dance floor.  Not all of us are equally skilled in this area, and clearly we can’t all become famous musicians or compete on So You Think You Can Dance.  But we might want to consider making some effort to improve our sense of rhythm now, since a new study has found that this ability may be associated with the brain’s responses to speech as well.

The research, which took place at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, discovered that those who can move along with the beat have more consistent responses to speech than those who have trouble keeping the beat.1 Ability to Move to a Beat Linked to Brain’s Response to Speech: Musical Training May Sharpen Language Processing.” Science Daily. 17 September 2013. Accessed 23 September 2013. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130917181103.htm   Therefore, the scientists drew the conclusion that musical training may be a means to improving language processing abilities and responses in the brain.

The subjects of the two phases of testing were more than 120 male and female high school students residing in or near Chicago.  In the first segment, they were asked to follow the beat of a metronome to the best of their ability, tapping their finger to its rhythm. Each participant was measured by the precision of their tapping in time with the clicks of the metronome.  The second portion of the experiment involved brainwave testing known as electroencephalography (EEG).  The scientists used this technology to observe the brainwave activity within the area of the brain responsible for sound processing while the volunteers were listening to a synthesized speech sound.  Over a span of 30 minutes of listening, this “da” speech simulation was played at random to gauge the response in the nerve cells of the brains of the teenagers.

The results determined that those subjects who demonstrated a greater aptitude in the first task of tapping in time with the metronome had a much more consistent brainwave response to hearing the “da” sounds than did their peers who had experienced difficulty accurately tapping to the beat.  This suggests that a common element between music and language is the ability to hear and discern rhythm.  Therefore, the researchers drew the conclusion that musical training, particularly that which focuses on rhythm, may help to improve a person’s skills and facility with language since rhythm is a key component of all languages, and each language has its own rhythm.

This study builds on previous findings that have shown that the cerebellum region of the brain is involved with both balance and coordination as well as discerning rhythm, and in a 2003 study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, researchers found that musicians’ cerebellums are typically five percent larger than the cerebellums of nonmusicians.2 Hutchinson, Siobhan; et al. “Cerebellar Volume of Musicians.” Cerebral Cortex. September 2003. Accessed 25 September 2013. http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/9/943.long   However, it may be somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation as far as the musical training goes.  The scientists did not question the participants about whether they have had any form of musical training and if so, how extensive.  So, while a correlation has been demonstrated, it is tough to pinpoint whether some of the volunteers came by their enhanced skills through previous musical work or it is simply a natural ability. Then again, a number of other studies have shown that music amps up your brain.

Whether those with a talent for keeping a beat came by their skill through training or through their genes, it does give the rest of us hope that by studying music we might improve other functions and brain health as well.  If musical training can strengthen our reading abilities or our talent for speaking well and keeping our audience engaged, or even learning new languages, for example, it may be well worth the effort.  And, since even just listening to music was shown in a 2011 study at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain, providing a sensation of pure pleasure,3 Salimpoor, Valorie N.; et al. “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.” Nature. 9 January 2011. Accessed 25 September 2013. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n2/full/nn.2726.html spending more time surrounded by music should offer plenty of enjoyment too…as long as your significant other can endure a little wild drum banging or crashing piano keys as you practice.

References   [ + ]

1. Ability to Move to a Beat Linked to Brain’s Response to Speech: Musical Training May Sharpen Language Processing.” Science Daily. 17 September 2013. Accessed 23 September 2013. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130917181103.htm
2. Hutchinson, Siobhan; et al. “Cerebellar Volume of Musicians.” Cerebral Cortex. September 2003. Accessed 25 September 2013. http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/9/943.long
3. Salimpoor, Valorie N.; et al. “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.” Nature. 9 January 2011. Accessed 25 September 2013. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n2/full/nn.2726.html

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