When a good song comes on the radio, it is often hard to resist nodding your head to the beat. Now, researchers have found that the accuracy with which we respond to a beat may determine how effectively our brains respond to speech.

Researchers from Northwestern University, led by Professor Nina Kraus, say their findings suggest that musical training could potentially improve the brain’s response to language.

For the study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers analyzed the relationship between the ability to keep to a beat and the brain’s response to sound in more than 100 teenagers.

The researchers say that it has been long known that moving to a steady beat requires synchronization between areas of the brain that are responsible for hearing and movement, but they wanted to investigate this further.

In the first of two experiments, the participants were required to listen and tap their finger along to a metronome – a device that produces regular, metrical beats.

The researchers monitored the participants’ accuracy based on how closely in time their taps aligned with the beats of the metronome.

In the second experiment, the participants were required to listen to a synthesized speech sound of “da,” which was repeated periodically for 30 minutes.

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Participants in Nina Kraus’ lab help her team investigate the neurobiology underlying speech, music, and learning.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Nina Kraus.

The researchers used EEGs (electroencephalography) in order to record the brainwaves from an area of the brain that processes sound throughout the task. In addition, the researchers calculated how similarly the nerve cells responded every time the “da” sound was repeated.

The findings showed that when participants demonstrated higher accuracy in tapping along to the beat, their brains responded more consistently to the “da” sound.

Previous studies, the researchers say, have shown an association between reading ability and beat accuracy, as well as reading ability and the consistency of how the brain responds to sound. They say these findings demonstrate that hearing is a common basis for these links.

Prof. Nina Kraus says:

Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language. It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read.”

John Iversen, who studies how the brain processes music at the University of California, San Diego, was not involved in the study, but he says the team’s findings show that musical training could have an important impact on the brain.

“This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language,” he says.

The research team says they are now looking to conduct a multi-year study involving a group of children receiving musical training, in order to analyze the effects of the training on beat synchronization, response consistency and reading skills.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested music lessons early in life may prove beneficial in the development of the brain.