Thursday, February 25, 2010

Music Boosts Capacity for Language

Words and music have been natural partners for millennia. In fact, music may have been in existence for at least 50,000 years, with the first music possibly coming from Africa. Charles Darwin even speculated that musical ability in humans might have developed before language.

Since its beginnings, music has evolved to become a fundamental element of human life. Music is found in every known culture, past and present, in great variation. Even the most isolated tribal groups have some form of music.

It shouldn't be a surprise that scientists have found that language and musical abilities are linked to each other within the brain. Generally, linear reasoning and language functions such as grammar and vocabulary are under the domain of the brain's left hemisphere, while the right side of the brain processes artistic ability and hearing. Studies show that music doesn't involve just these certain spots in the brain, but it activates large swaths of both the left and right hemispheres.

Neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus has led the first research to demonstrate that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brain's sensitivity to sounds. There is strong evidence that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brain's sensitivity to speech. Further evidence shows that music lessons help children improve their language skills.
"Playing music engages the ability to extract relevant patterns, such as the sound of one's own instrument, harmonies and rhythms, from the 'soundscape'," said Professor Kraus. "Not surprisingly, musicians' nervous systems are more effective at using the patterns in music and speech alike."
"People's hearing systems are fine-tuned by the experiences they've had with sound throughout their lives," said Prof Kraus. "Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We've found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion."
The research also suggests that playing an instrument affects automatic processing in the brainstem, which controls breathing, the heartbeat and responses to complex sounds. Kraus and her team discovered music can "fundamentally shape" brains in ways that may enhance common tasks, including reading and listening.
"Musical experience improves abilities important in daily life. Playing an instrument may help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice," she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.

"Cash-strapped school districts are making a mistake when they cut music from the curriculum," she warned.
That applies to adults, too. Musicians are better at picking out the voice of a friend in a noisy restaurant. They're also better able to identify emotional changes and inflection in voice and speech patterns.

Possibly even more importantly, researchers have found that music education can help children with developmental disorders. Music could help some children with dyslexia, who have a harder time hearing sounds amid the din. A National Autistic Society spokeswoman said many children with autism respond well to music: "It seems that music can help children to communicate and interact with those around them, relax or to express emotions."

This sort of training probably starts earlier than parents realize. When people talk to babies, they often use musical patterns in their speech. When children start speaking on their own, they also tend to have a sing-song quality to their speech. Babies as young as three months have been found to respond to different frequencies in music and develop communication skills through music. Perhaps on some primitive level, humans have known how important music is to language.

There is good news at the other end of the spectrum, too. As long as a century ago there were reports of stroke victims who couldn't talk but who could sing. Now new research suggests that intensive musical therapy may help stroke patients and other people with neurological degenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s, communicate better with those around them.

People who have suffered a severe stroke on the left side of the brain sometimes cannot speak, but some have learned to communicate through singing. Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has found that stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak can be trained to say hundreds of phrases by singing them first. Sometimes just with a few minutes of therapy, severely language-impaired stroke victims responses changed from incoherent noises to clear, short phrases. Some were even able to sing "Happy Birthday" after minimal amounts of therapy.

Finally, music can help non-musicians as well. Listening to any kind of music appears to be good for people at the neurological level, as it also activates the brain in different ways. Listening to new music seems to have an especially dramatic effect. Physicist, scientific writer, and piano player Philip Ball decided analyze the current scientific knowledge about music and how the human brain makes sense of it. He found that people subconsciously try to predict what’s coming next in an unfamiliar musical piece, from the moment the first note is heard:
“It seems that that’s kind of how melody works,” Ball says. “One thing we want to do straight away is to figure out what the key is. Even people who have no idea what the concept of ‘key’ means will be doing that, whether they know it or not. Trying to find out where the tune is anchored. It’s something we do automatically, on the basis of what we’ve learned about the statistics of notes that are used….from the tests that have been done, that we’re constantly evaluating what’s going on in a melody in the light of experience. Where the melody is likely to go; the fact that it tends to go up in small steps; and it tends to go up and then down. There are these particular contours that it tends to follow.”
The conclusion of those in the biomedical field who have been researching music contend that, much like arithmetic and grammar, music should be a core curriculum due to its benefits for the human brain. It can also be an incredibly useful therapeutic tool.


  1. Wonderful article! I'm adding a link to here from a webpage I have written about music education and intelligence. Thank for for sharing your knowledge and information. :) ~ Pamela at Joyful Songs

  2. Thanks :) I'm glad you liked it! Music is more important than it has gotten credit for in recent years. I like to highlight information like this when it becomes available :)