The importance of keeping a beat: Researchers link ability to keep a beat to reading, language skills
A study in The Journal of Neuroscience by Dr. Nina Kraus shows a relationship between neural response consistency and ability to keep a beat. Dr. Kraus lab, shown here (below) , investigates the neurobiology underlying speech, music, and learning. Credit: Dr. Nina Kraus.
The findings of a Northwestern University study of more than 100 high school students lend proof to the surprising link between music, rhythmic abilities and language skills.
The study—the first to provide biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to the neural encoding of speech sounds—has significant implications for reading, according to Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.
Previous investigations found a link between reading ability and beat-keeping, says Kraus in a study published in the Sept. 18 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Previous research has established a link between reading ability and neural response consistency. "By directly linking auditory responses with beat-keeping ability, we have closed the triangle," Kraus says.
The study demonstrates that accurate beat-keeping involves synchronization between the parts of the brain responsible for hearing as well as movement. Where previous research investigations focused on the motor half of the equation, Kraus and co-author Adam Tierney focused on the auditory component.
Because hearing sounds of speech and associating them with the letters comprising written words is crucial to learning to read, the Northwestern researchers reasoned that the association between reading and beat synchronization likely has a common basis in the auditory system.
To investigate the relationship between beat-keeping and auditory processing, 124 Chicago high school studentsvisited Kraus's lab and were given two tests. In the first, they were asked to listen to a metronome and tap their finger along to it on a special tapping pad. Tapping accuracy was computed based on how closely their taps aligned in time to the tick-tock of the metronome.
In a "brainwave test," the students were fitted with electrodes measuring the consistency of their brain responseto a repeated syllable. Across the population, the more accurate the adolescents were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brain response was to the speech syllable.
"This is supported biologically," Kraus says. "The brainwaves we measured originate from a biological hub ofauditory processing with reciprocal connections with the motor-movement centers. An activity that requires coordination of hearing and movement is likely to rely on solid and accurate communication across brain regions."
Accurate beat-keeping's implications for reading and language skills simply make sense, according to the co-authors. "Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language," Kraus says. "And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding."
For example, you might slow down your speech or stress one syllable more than another to emphasize a particular point. And minute timing differences distinguish consonants, such as "b" and "p." Hearing that timing distinction is necessary to identify the sounds with the letters that represent them.
"Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses," says Kraus. "It may be that musical training—with its emphasis on rhythmic skills—can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read."
Kraus, who is the Knowles Chair in Northwestern's School of Communication and professor of neurobiology in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is conducting longitudinal investigations that look directly at the effects of music training by measuring beat synchronization, response consistency, reading and other language skills in children as they progress through music instruction from year to year.
Playing an instrument could sharpen the mind, according to a new study.
Published by BBC News
Researchers at the University of St Andrews said their findings showed musicians were quicker to pick up mistakes and correct them. The study adds to previous studies linking musical skills with mental and physical well-being. The team said their results indicated musical activity could be used to slow, stop or even reverse age and illness-related decline in mental functioning.
The study compared groups of amateur musicians - with varying levels of time they had spent in practicing their instrument - to a non-musician control group. Researchers then measured each group's behavioural and brain responses to simple mental tests.
The most striking difference came in the musicians' ability to recognise and correct mistakes. They also responded faster than those with little or no musical training, with no loss in accuracy. The team said this was perhaps not surprising since musicians learn to be constantly aware of their performance, but to not be overly affected by mistakes.
Psychologist Dr Ines Jentzsch, who led the research, said: "Our study shows that even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning. "Our findings could have important implications as the processes involved are amongst the first to be affected by aging, as well as a number of mental illnesses such as depression.
"The research suggests that musical activity could be used as an effective intervention to slow, stop or even reverse age, or illness, related decline in mental functioning."
The study was partly funded by the Wellcome Trust and has been published in the journal Neuropsychologia.
Dr Jentzsch, herself a keen pianist, continued, "Musical activity cannot only immensely enrich our lives but the associated benefits for our physical and mental functioning could be even more far-reaching than proposed in our and previous research."
ARE WE WIRED FOR MUSIC? Studies have shown that the human brain has an implicit musical ability. Koelsch, Gunter, Friederici and Schoger (2000) investigated the influence of preceding musical context, task relevance of unexpected chords and the degree of probability of violation on music processing in both musicians and non-musicians. Findings showed that the human brain unintentionally extrapolates expectations about impending auditory input. Even in non-musicians, the extrapolated expectations are consistent with music theory. The ability to process information musically supports the idea of an implicit musical ability in the human brain. In a follow-up study, Koelsch, Schroger, and Gunter (2002) investigated whether ERAN and N5 could be evoked preattentively in non-musicians. Findings showed that both ERAN and N5 can be elicited even in a situation where the musical stimulus is ignored by the listener indicating that there is a highly differentiated preattentive musicality in the human brain.
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Brain structure within musicians and non-musicians is distinctly different. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) compared brain structures of professional musicians with non-musicians and discovered gray mattervolume differences in motor, auditory and visual-spatial brain regions. Specifically, positive correlations were discovered between musician status (professional, amateur and non-musician) and gray matter volume in the primary motor and somatosensory areas, premotor areas, anterior superior parietal areas and in the inferior temporal gyrus bilaterally. This strong association between musician status and gray matter differences supports the notion that musicians’ brains show use-dependent structural changes. Due to the distinct differences in several brain regions, it is unlikely that these differences are innate but rather due to the long-term acquisition and repetitive rehearsal of musical skills.
Brains of musicians also show functional differences from those of non-musicians. Krings, Topper, Foltys, Erberich, Sparing, Willmes and Thron (2000) utilized fMRI to study brain area involvement of professional piano players and a control group while performing complex finger movements. Krings et al. found that the professional piano players showed lower levels of cortical activation in motor areas of the brain. It was concluded that a lesser amount of neurons needed to be activated for the piano players due to long-term motor practice which results in the different cortical activation patterns. Koeneke, Lutz, Wustenberg and Jancke (2004) reported similar findings in keyboard players. Skilled keyboard players and a control group performed complex tasks involving unimanual and bimanual finger movements. During task conditions, strong hemodynamic responses in the cerebellum were shown by both non-musicians and keyboard players, but non-musicians showed the stronger response. This finding indicates that different cortical activation patterns emerge from long-term motor practice. This evidence supports previous data showing that musicians require fewer neurons to perform the same movements.
Musicians have been shown to have significantly more developed left planum temporales, and have also shown to have a greater word memory (Chan et al.). Chan’s study controlled for age, grade point average and years of education and found that when given a 16 word memory test, the musicians averaged one to two more words above their non musical counterparts.
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