Rhythm and Language

by | May 5,16 | Music, Music and the Brain, Speech

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