Do abilities in music and language have anything in common? According to a research team out of Northwestern University, there is a connection between rhythm and language in the brain. The researchers analyzed a group of adolescents and found that people who are better able to keep a beat have more consistent brain responses to music and sound. These findings have implications for the importance of musical training.

Professor Nina Kraus, PhD led a team that evaluated 100 teenagers from the Chicago area who participated in two tests. The first test called for the teens to tap their fingers in time with a metronome. The researchers measured the participants’ rhythmic accuracy by scoring their ability to match the metronome’s “tic-tocs.” In the second test, electroencephalography (EEG) was used to record brain waves from a particular hub for auditory processing. As the EEG recorded, the teenagers listened to a synthesized speech sound—da—that was repeated periodically over a 30 minute interval. The scientists then calculated the similarity of the nerve cells from the brain region in question.

The results showed a connection between an ability to keep a beat and consistent brain response to the da syllable. Being rhythmically accurate was correlated with a more consistent reaction to the auditory input (measured by the EEG).

Previous research had demonstrated a link between reading and beat-keeping ability and reading ability, as well as with consistency of brain response to sounds. According to Kraus, her team’s new findings bring together the results of these previous studies because her team has found that hearing is the unifying factor in all of these activities.

These findings suggest that musical training may have more benefits for the brain than previously thought. They also indicate that rhythmic abilities have applications in areas apparently unrelated to music, like reading and language.

Kraus and her team have begun a multi-year study to further investigate the relationship between music and language skills.

“Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language. It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read,” stated Kraus.

This research is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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