July 21, 2010 / 8:49 AM / in 7 years

Music can boost language skills

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Learning to play a musical instrument can change your brain, with a U.S. review finding music training can lead to improved speech and foreign language skills.

<p>A man plays the saxophone in New York's Central Park October 12, 2007. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton</p>

Although it has been suggested in the past that listening to Mozart or other classical music could make you smarter, there has been little evidence to show that music boosts brain power.

But a data-driven review by Northwestern University has pulled together research that links musical training to learning that spills over into skills including language, speech, memory, attention and even vocal emotion.

Researcher Nina Kraus said the data strongly suggested that the neural connections made during musical training also primed the brain for other aspects of human communication.

“The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development,” the researchers said in their study.

Kraus said learning musical sounds could enhance the brain’s ability to adapt and change and also enable the nervous system to provide a scaffolding of patterns that are important to learning.

The study, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, looked at the explosion of research in recent years focused on the effects of music training on the nervous system which could have strong implications for education.

The study found that playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex process that may involve reading or remembering a score, timing issues and coordination with other musicians.

“A musician’s brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound,” Kraus said in a statement. “In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean.”

The study reviewed literature showing, for example, that musicians are more successful than non-musicians in learning to incorporate sound patterns for a new language into words.

Children who are musically trained are better at observing pitch changes in speech and have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training.

Musicians trained to hear sounds embedded in networks of melodies and harmonies are primed to understand speech in a noisy background.

But Kraus said currently what is known about the benefits of music training on sensory processing beyond that involved in musical performance is largely derived from studying those who are fortunate enough to afford such training.

The researchers concluded that there needed to be a serious investment of resources into music training in schools accompanied with rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention and literacy skills.

Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Steve Addison

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