Music education could help children improve their language skills

via ABC News

While many people often consider music a universal language, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study done in Beijing shows that it may help with spoken language as well.

Kindergarten students who took piano lessons showed increased capabilities to distinguish pitch and understand spoken words — and it showed up on their brain scans, according to the study’s findings.

Researchers from the International Data Group (IDG)/McGovern Institute at Beijing Normal University wanted to compare the effects of music education on reading versus standard reading training. The reading training included an interactive reading experience, in which the teacher read words aloud from enlarged texts, and the students read along with the teacher.

“If children who received music training did as well or better than children who received additional academic instruction, that could be a justification for why schools might want to continue to fund music,” Robert Desimone, Ph.D., senior author of the research article and director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, explained.

A group of 74 Mandarin-speaking children, ages 4 to 5, were randomly assigned to three smaller groups. One group got piano training, the second group was trained in reading, and a third control group received no extra training at all. Piano training included 45-minute piano sessions three times a week.

After six months of piano lessons, researchers found that the students were better at differentiating between spoken words and vowel sounds. The group with reading training had similar results. However, the difference between these two groups came in “consonant-based word discrimination.” The piano lessons group did better; this correlated to the group’s response to differences in musical pitch, which was observed immediately after the children heard a pair of notes in a sound-proof room and were then asked to differentiate between pitches.

While the study involved a small sample size and the differences in performance between the piano lesson and reading groups weren’t found in all studied areas, the researchers say that the findings were still significant when looking at language study.

“The children didn’t differ in the more broad cognitive measures,” Desimone said, “but they did show some improvements in word discrimination, particularly for consonants. The piano group showed the best improvement there.”