The Rhythm and Words: How music helps kids learn language


Music is often romantically described as the universal language, and researchers are discovering new ways music helps children understand spoken languages too.

Dr. Reyna Gordon and an international team of colleagues published a paper earlier this year that for the first time described a relationship between how well kids understand rhythm and morpho-syntactic production (grammar).

For years, formal music training has been associated with a wide range of language processing benefits. Musical aptitude even has an effect on reading skills in children without formal music training.

For this new study, Gordon and her colleagues wanted to know if rhythm perception was positively linked to differences in how well children understand grammar and words.

The researchers took 25 six-year-olds and tested them on rhythm, grammar, and a third variable called Phonetic awareness. Phonological awareness, how well one understands the sound structure of words, is an important indicator of a child’s future reading ability.

Gordon gave the children a series of two rhythm tests:

In the first test, a computer program played two melodies and asked the children if the melodies were the same or slightly different. Next, the kids watched a cartoon where “Randy Drummer” played a rhythm, and asked if another rhythm was made by Randy’s twin brother “Sandy Same” or the maverick drummer “Doggy Different”.

The researchers tested grammar comprehension by asking children to describe a photograph. Gordon asked specific questions to see how well the children handled things like speaking in past tense.

The phonological awareness test explored how well children understood the sounds words make. They asked the children questions such as “What word does ‘Sss—uhh—nnn’ make?”, or to do things like “Say tiger without making the “G” sound.”

The kids who fared well on the rhythm test also did better on the grammar test regardless of IQ, socioeconomic status, or even whether they did well on the phonological test. So why is that?

Gordon suggests music activities help language acquisition by improving parts of the brain associated with speech.

Adults comprehend language by using subtle rhythmic cues in a person's speech. These cues point to the prominent words in a sentence, allowing the listener to focus on the important parts of speech. Children rely on these rhythmic cues to aid in language acquisition—so kids who can better detect the differences in musical rhythm may be better at the rhythm of language as well.