Musical Training Found Important for Verbal Communication

25 September 2007

Scientists say musical training appears to improve verbal skills.  They explain that developing musical skills and learning to speak involve the same brain stem process, and that could help children with learning disabilities.  VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Musical training involves putting together information from multiple sources, according to Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University in Illinois.

She says it involves looking at the musical score, reading the lips of other musicians, hearing what's being played and touching an instrument, things that enhance multi-sensory processing.  

Kraus says the process of speaking is not that different.

"Both are structurally complex and they are functionally complex in that they engage the nervous system in ways that really make us think about what it is we are doing and focus on what it is that we are doing," she noted.

In both instances, Kraus says speech and music are filtered through a structure of the nervous system called the brain stem that controls auditory response or hearing, which is essential for verbal communication.

Until recently, experts have thought that the brain stem could not be manipulated or changed.

But a study by Kraus and her colleagues reported in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences suggests that brain stem function can be enhanced significantly in humans through musical training.

In the study, participants with varying degrees of musical ability were asked to wear scalp electrodes that measured their multi-sensory brain responses while they listened to audio and watched a video of a cellist playing and a person speaking.

"The cello has sound tones, sound frequencies, that correspondent quite a bit acoustically with some of the sounds that are important with speech," he said.  "And, so, we thought that would be a good sound to work with."

Investigators found that the more years of training volunteers had, the more sensitive they were to the tones, pitch and rhythm of the sample music. 

"It seems the people who practiced most recently and were engaged in musical activity and listening to concerts for example… these were people in whom the enhancement of sensory and multi-sensory events was the strongest," she said.

For children with learning disabilities, Kraus says strengthening auditory perception through music could mean they hear sentences and perceive facial expressions accurately.

"My goodness we are just scratching the surface here.  There are so many studies to be done with different instruments," she noted.

Studies that could lead to greater gains in human perception through music.