Ability to Keep a Beat Linked to Language Skills

kids playing instruments
The ability to keep a beat influences how the brain responds to speech. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Nina Kraus.)

People who can keep a rhythm well have more consistent brain responses to speech, a new study finds.

The ability of adolescents to keep a beat was mirrored in their brain activity while they were hearing spoken sounds, the research showed. The findings hint that musical training could improve mental skills involved in language.

Rhythm is a critical feature in both music and speech, said study researcher Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. [10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp ]

Grooving to a beat requires coordination between hearing and movement areas in the brain. Previous research has shown that language skills such as reading are linked to both rhythmic ability and to the brain's response to sound. Kraus and her colleagues wondered whether the ability to keep a beat was directly linked to the brain's response to speech.

To find out, they tested a group of 124 Chicago high-school students, most of whom had no musical training. In one task, the teenagers tapped their fingers in time with a drumbeat, and the accuracy of their tapping was measured. In another task, researchers recorded the teens' brainwaves using electroencephalography (EEG) — electrodes on the scalp — while the participants listened to a speech synthesizer repeating a "da" sound (a common sound in speech).

The more accurate the teens were at keeping the beat, the more consistent their brain responses were to the spoken sound, the researchers found. In other words, the less variable their tapping was compared with the drumbeat, the less variable their brainwaves were in encoding the "da" sound.

In earlier studies, Kraus' team found that musicians' brains are better at encoding speech than nonmusicians' brains. In particular, musicians are better at hearing speech in noisy environments. Musical training also improves rhythmic ability, which is important for reading skills.

"This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in nonmusic areas, particularly language," neuroscientist John Iversen of the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the study, said in a statement.

Kraus and her colleagues are currently conducting longitudinal studies of kids in Chicago public schools and gang-reduction zones in Los Angeles to see how community-based music programs may impact neural learning.

The study was detailed today (Sept. 17) in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.