Rhythm and Language

Rhythm and Language

The link between music and language is a hot topic, and one that can be highly theoretical. However, in among the strange claims of whale-song boosting the IQ of unborn babies there are ways of teasing out details of this link in practical ways.

To take a single example: a team at Cambridge University compared how children with Specific Language Impairments (SLIs) dealt with aspects of speech and music such as pitch, phonology (the units of sound that make up language) and rhythm (the tempo of those sounds) ref. By comparing the children’s performance on music and speech tests the team could then see if the two were linked.

The children were split into three groups – those with no SLI to act as a control group, and representing the general population. Then there were two groups of children with SLIs: those with otherwise normal phonology and reading (Pure SLI) and those whose phonology and reading was also impaired (SLI PPR). They were then subjected to a wide variety of tests including things like picking the non-rhyming word out of a triplet (cat, dog, sat), tapping along to a metronome, and identifying which sounds were the same in triplets when the pitch of one item was altered.

The children with otherwise normal phonology and reading showed no significant difference to the control group, except in the ability to tap in time to the metronome while the group of children with reading and phonology difficulties found most of the tests significantly more difficult.

From this study it seems that the ability to recognise rhythm in music is tied to the development of language, and that activities working on rhythm could have a positive impact on children with SLIs. It also indicates that music and rhythm could positively affect children with SLI difficulties in reading and phonology.

written by Jon Pill

Melody Gardot

Melody Gardot

It’s been a while since I went to a live gig. This weekend we headed down to the Colston Hall to check out the Bristol Jazz Festival, holding two tickets tightly in my hand.


I love jazz. But Melody is more than a jazz artist, she is a show-woman and a talented instrumentalist. Her vocals were exquisite – exploring the whole range of what her voice can do, creating atmosphere and holding us captive. One thing I loved is that it wasn’t all about the vocals; each band member was a brilliant musician, and each were showcased with solos throughout the evening.


The final tune was the gorgeous preacherman where the audience was invited to join in with a catchy riff. As we all joined in you could hear a few harmonies floating up from the chairs as Melody sang out over the top. It felt like we had joined her on the stage momentarily. Lush.


Check out Melody’s recent album here.

Listening With Your Body

Listening With Your Body

People usually assume that listening is done through the ear, but really there is so much more to listening.

Let me introduce you to the great Evelyn Glennie, a talented musician, speaker and educator. She is the first person to have a full-time career as a solo percussionist and recently received honorary membership from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and the Polar Music Prize (a big deal – the musical equivalent of a Nobel Prize).
Evelyn lost her hearing by age 12 and learnt to recognize the difference between sounds through the vibration in her hands and throughout her body. She started her percussion lessons by training herself to recognize tiny differences in the vibrations of sound.
As I carry out speech and language intervention at a school for deaf children this is so important to understand! During this TED talk, Evelyn asks the viewer to allow their body to be a ‘resonating chamber’ for the music they experience, to experience the journey of the sounds, not just the initial contact of the stick on the drum, or the bow on the string. To pay attention to the tiny changes in how the sounds are affecting our bodies.
During the talk she explores notions beyond instructions from sheet music, interpreting the music with feeling, and in the final stage to listen to ourselves, both musician and audience alike.
Let’s think differently about music. And start learning how to listen.

And click here to watch the talk!

Image by: King JG, Hillyer JF, on Wikipedia here

Music for the Half Marathon

Music for the Half Marathon

It’s two weeks today until the Bristol Half Marathon! Read on for some musical training tips to help you keep motivated.

Lots of people listen to music while they run, as it can positively affect your mood and reduce how much pain you feel! A study in Germany showed that runners preferred listening to music with a similar frequency to their physiological systems[1] (that is how much you shake up and down, and the electrical signals in your brain – 3 Hertz apparently). Also, synchronising your stride to the beat can help you maintain your speed.[2] So we prefer running when we feel that the music is in tune with our body, or vice versa. Watch out though… the brain can become desensitized – so using music when you really need it is much more effective than listening every time you run.

I will be running the Bristol Half this year. Gulp. I am a little bit nervous. I am running with a
couple of friends in aid of a fab charity called Bridges for Communities, who aim to create links between different cultures and communities. If you would like to sponsor my run – I’m feeling exhausted just thinking about it – click here

My playlist currently includes; Swedish House Mafia – One, Pharrell Willams – Happy, and some David Guetta. Got any tune recommendations to get me through those 13.1miles? Please name some below!

[1] http://running.competitor.com/2013/09/training/does-music-help-during-a-run-the-results-are-mixed_13979#isy6lAJOkc3WJktv.99

[2] http://womensrunning.competitor.com/2014/07/training-tips/can-music-help-you-run-faster_28058#i3iJoUwt2PTEuc2q.99

So you think you’re tone deaf?

So you think you’re tone deaf?

‘I can’t sing. I’m actually tone-deaf.’

This is a surprisingly common response when people find out that I’m a singing teacher. But of all the people in the world who get out of karaoke and carol singing with this line, very few actually are tone-deaf.

Tone-deafness, known as ‘amusia’ in its medical sense, is a cognitive issue linked to how the brain processes musical information. Usually sound is processed by the auditory cortex in the brain, before being sent on to the frontal and parietal cortices. This is a bit like when a document is proofread by one person for grammar, and then the corrected version is sent to another person to check for meaning. Amusia occurs when auditory information goes separately to these areas, but the two proofreaders don’t benefit from the insight of the other and so miss some errors. [1] This can show up as difficulty with recognizing pitch.

 is how high or low a sound is. How does this work? When any sound is made we hear it because the instrument makes the air vibrate. Imagine the strings inside a piano – of varying lengths. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer hits a string and it vibrates the air around it – shorter strings vibrate faster (higher pitch), longer strings vibrate more slowly (lower pitch). This vibration hits your eardrum, which sends a message to your brain.

Not all pitch problems are tone-deafness.[2] There are lots of reasons why someone might find pitch-matching difficult; lack of technique or experience, or perhaps growing up with little exposure to music. But in my experience the most common and most restrictive reason is lack of confidence. It only takes being told once or twice ‘that sounds awful!’ for a person to avoid it at all costs, creating negative associations with singing. Singing then becomes a psychological battle, inhibiting good breathing technique and tensing muscles in the vocal tract when they should be relaxed. This affects the sound produced, reinforcing the idea that they ‘can’t sing’, and so the vicious cycle continues.

In these cases, vocal training can allow the student to learn to correct their pitch through relaxation of their vocal instrument and through ear-training. This can be a revolutionary and exciting prospect for those who love to sing but have never been confident in their ability to hold a tune.

So, if you love to sing, but you’ve always thought you couldn’t carry a tune some vocal training could be the key – go on, try it!

[1] This process is discussed on singwise here, but the mildly shaky analogy is my own

[2]For an interesting article on how tone-deafness is measured see:
Sloboda, J. Wise. K, and Peretz, I. (2005) ‘Quantifying Tone Deafness in the General Population’ Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 1060: 255–261, which can be accessed here

Top left: ‘Loud noise’ By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Middle right: Frequency sketches, by Victoria Punch

Mozart and the Brain?

Mozart and the Brain?

There’s always been debate on whether classical music increases IQ. But is there any scientific basis for this idea?  A TED talk on Music and the Brain, by Jessica Grahn*, discusses this issue. She starts the story in 1993, when there was a craze for playing Mozart to babies, to improve brain function and perform better in tests – which, it seemed, they did.
However, the original test results on college students turned out not to be due to Mozart’s genius being imparted, but due to the type of music being played. The key research had used a jumpy, springy, energetic piece that got the participants psyched and ready for the spatial tests they had to complete. The non-Mozart control groups had silence, or some chilled music played to them – much less invigorating!
 Time passed, and more scientists got involved and worked out that the improved results were linked to how the music made you feel. If it induced lethargy or relaxation you would perform less brilliantly than if it made you feel energised and happy.
So in summary, says Jessica, mood affects cognitive performance. There follows a list of the many amazing ways that music can impact life: it increases endurance while exercising, and reduces pain. It can aid stroke rehabilitation, release memories in dementia patients, and help those with Parkinson’s disease to walk.
Music can have a profound impact on our brains. What music makes you feel happy?
*You can watch it here.