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Music lessons Vs. language skills

music and language

It has been shown in multiple studies that musical training can enhance language skills.

However, it wasn’t clear what exactly music lessons enhance: do music lessons improve general cognitive ability, leading to better language proficiency, or if the effect of music is more specific to language processing.

A new study from MIT shows that having  piano lessons  has  a very specific effect on kindergarteners’ ability to distinguish different pitches. In other words, this finding translates into an improvement in differentiating between verbal words. However, the piano lessons did not appear to confer any benefit for overall cognitive ability, as measured by IQ, attention span, and working memory. “The children didn’t differ in the broader cognitive measures, but they did show some improvements in word discrimination, particularly for consonants. The piano group showed the best improvement there,” says Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the senior author of the paper.The study, which was undertaken in Beijing, suggests that musical training is at least as beneficial in improving language skills, and possibly more beneficial, than offering children additional lessons in reading. The school where the study was conducted has continued to offer piano lessons to students, and the researchers hope their findings could encourage other schools to at least keep or, better, enhance their music offerings.The lead author of the study is an associate professor at Beijing Normal University, Yun Nan, and the paper has appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Other authors include Li Liu, Hua Shu, and Qi Dong, all of Beijing Normal University; Eveline Geiser, a former MIT research scientist; Chen-Chen Gong, an MIT research associate; and John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.Benefits of music studies in the past have demonstrated that on average, musicians perform better than non-musicians on tasks such as reading comprehension, distinguishing speech from background noise, and rapid auditory processing.

However, most of these studies were carried out in such a way by asking subjects about their past musical training. The MIT researchers wanted to perform a more controlled study in which the researchers could randomly assign children to receive music lessons or not, and then go on to measure the effects. The researchers decided to perform the study at a school in Beijing, partly because local education officials were interested in finding out the value of music education versus extra reading training.The reasoning stems from the question that “If children who received music training did as well or better than children who received additional academic instruction, that could a justification for why schools might want to continue to fund music”. The 74 children participating in the study were separated into three groups: one group received 45-minute piano lessons three times a week;

one group received additional reading lessons for the same period of time; and  group received neither instructions. All of the participating children were aged 4 or 5 years old and Mandarin Chinese was their native language.After six months, the researchers tested the children on their ability to differentiate words based on vowels/consonants/tone variations. (Note: Mandarin is a tonal language; many words differ only in tone). Better word discrimination often translates into better phonological awareness. Such awareness of the sound structure of words is a crucial part when children are learning to read.

Children who received piano lessons displayed a significant advantage over children in the extra reading group in discriminating between words that differ by one consonant. Children in both the piano lesson group and extra reading group performed better than children who received neither instructions when it came to distinguishing words based on vowel differences.Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to measure brain activity and the researchers found that children in the piano group demonstrated stronger responses than the other children when they listened to a series of tones of different pitch.

This indicate that a greater sensitivity to pitch differences is what helped the children who took piano lessons to better distinguish different words, Desimone says.“That’s a big thing for kids in learning language: being able to hear the differences between words,” he says. “They really did benefit from having the piano lessons.”When testing the children’s IQ, attention, and working memory, the researchers did not observe any noticeable differences among the three groups, suggesting that the piano lessons did not confer any improvement on overall cognitive function. 

Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University, says the findings also address the important question of whether purely instrumental musical training can enhance speech processing. And the answer is a resounding Yes. “This study answers the question in the affirmative, with an elegant design that directly compares the effect of music and language instruction on young children. The work specifically links behavioural improvements in speech perception to the neural impact of musical training, which has both theoretical and real-world significance,” says Professor Patel, who was not involved in the research.

Educational Rewards Desimone says that he hopes the findings will help to convince education officials who are considering cancelling or reducing music classes in schools not to do so, as “there are positive benefits to piano education in young children, and it looks like for recognising differences between sounds including speech sounds, having piano lessons has worked out better and more beneficial than extra reading. That means schools could invest in music and there will be generalisation to speech sounds.” 

Summary on a published article of MIT in June last year.


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