‘An exciting breakthrough’: Musical rhythms boost language skills in children – study

‘An exciting breakthrough’: Musical rhythms boost language skills in children – study

Musical rhythms can help children with speech and language processing difficulties in finding their voice by improving their capacity to repeat sentences they just heard, new research shows.

The study, led by a Western Sydney University researcher and published in Springer Nature’s npj: Science of Learning, was conducted at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France with 15 French speaking children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and 18 typically developing French speaking children without language processing difficulties between the ages of 5 and 13 years.

The children listened to music with regular and irregular rhythms for 30 seconds before being asked to repeat back sets of six sentences as accurately as they could – and with remarkable results.

All children who participated in the study – including those with language problems – were able to better repeat sentences out loud after hearing the regular musical rhythms compared to the irregular musical rhythms.

Further, there was no difference in performance on a control task that did not involve language, suggesting that the benefit of the regular musical rhythm was specific to the language task itself.

Researchers used regular rhythms that were at 120 beats per minute in 4/4 time, so that the listener would feel the beat two times per second. Irregular rhythms were created by scrambling the regular rhythms used so that it was not possible to extract a beat.

The study’s authors say the findings are particularly striking considering that children with developmental language disorder have particular difficulty in repeating sentences out loud, especially when they are grammatically complex.

Important takeaways for schools

Cognitive psychologist Dr Anna Fiveash from Western Sydney University’s MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development and Dr Enikő Ladányi from Vanderbilt University Medical Centre co-authored the study.

Based on the study, Dr Fiveash and Dr Ladányi said rhythmic music with a clear and engaging beat could be the most efficient in helping language processing.

“Music that the child enjoys is also likely to be more motivating than music they do not enjoy, so individual preferences should also be taken into account,” they told The Educator.

“Our current study suggests that the rhythms are beneficial because they are very predictable and easier to process than the sentences, which can help to prepare the brain to understand the more complex sentence rhythm and grammatical structures.”

Dr Fiveash and Dr Ladányi said one important finding of their study is that children with DLD could also benefit from rhythm despite possibly having poorer rhythm abilities.

“Although we cannot make any recommendations based solely on the current results, we believe that children with DLD should be encouraged to take music classes despite their potentially lower rhythm abilities, especially if they enjoy the classes,” they said.

“Music can enrich life, and our results suggest that it might have a positive impact on language development too. Using simplified language and potentially non-verbal instructions at music classes could help children with DLD to stay engaged with the class.”