Get rythm, and you’ll get the grammar? Ability to distinguish musical rhythm related to capacity for understanding grammar

According to a recent study from Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology and at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, a child’s ability to distinguish musical rhythm is related to his or her capacity for understanding grammar. Though Gordon emphasizes that more research will be necessary to determine how to apply the knowledge – something she didn’t examine! – she looks forward to the possibilities of using musical education to improve grammar skills. For example, rhythm could be taken into account when measuring grammar in children with language disorders.

At this stage it’s an important insight that there is a link.

From the press release:

Gordon studied 25 typically developing 6-year-olds, first testing them with a standardized test of music aptitude.

A computer program prompted the children to judge if two melodies — either identical or slightly different — were the same or different.

Next, the children played a computer game that the research team developed called a beat-based assessment. The children watched a cartoon character play two rhythms, then had to determine whether a third rhythm was played by “Sammy Same” or “Doggy Different.”

To measure the children’s grammar skills, they were shown a variety of photographs and asked questions about them.

They were measured on the grammatical accuracy of their answers, such as competence in using the past tense. Though the grammatical and musical tests were quite different, Gordon found that children who did well on one kind tended to do well on the other, regardless of IQ, music experience and socioeconomic status.

To explain the findings, Gordon suggested first considering the similarities between speech and music — for example, they each contain rhythm.

In grammar, children’s minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases and sentences and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so. In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat.

Perhaps children who are better at detecting variations in music timing are also better at detecting variations in speech and therefore have an advantage in learning language, she suggested.

Abstract from the study:

This study considered a relation between rhythm perception skills and individual differences in phonological awareness and grammar abilities, which are two language skills crucial for academic achievement. Twenty-five typically developing 6-year-old children were given standardized assessments of rhythm perception, phonological awareness, morpho-syntactic competence, and non-verbal cognitive ability. Rhythm perception accounted for 48% of the variance in morpho-syntactic competence after controlling for non-verbal IQ, socioeconomic status, and prior musical activities. Children with higher phonological awareness scores were better able to discriminate complex rhythms than children with lower scores, but not after controlling for IQ. This study is the first to show a relation between rhythm perception skills and morpho-syntactic production in children with typical language development. These findings extend the literature showing substantial overlap of neurocognitive resources for processing music and language

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