Scientists Discover Music Lessons Have Yet Another Amazing Benefit

Music lessons help children learn language skills by honing their ability to differentiate between pitches, according to research. 

Numerous studies in the past have shown musical training can boost a person’s language skills, the study authors noted. So the team who conducted the study wanted to understand whether music lessons develop a person’s cognitive ability, or if music helps the brain process different sounds.

To test their hypothesis, researchers at MIT and the McGovern Institute at Beijing Normal University divided 74 children aged between four to five into three groups. One set took 45-minute piano lessons three times a week. The other group had extra reading tuition for the same amount of time. The control group had neither. Mandarin was the native language of all of the children.

Six months later, the children took a test to measure their ability to distinguish between Mandarin words based on differences in vowels consonants or tone. This variety was important because many words in Mandarin differ in tone, and the ability to spot the difference between phonemes is an important part of learning to read.

piano-child-stock Researchers believe music lessons can help children improve their language skills. Unsplash/Siniz Kim

Both the children who took piano lessons and those who had additional reading lessons were better at telling the difference between similar words with different vowels. But the participants who were assigned piano lessons were better than the children in the reading group in differentiating between words with one consonant between them.

To gain a deeper understanding of how the lessons affected the participants’ brains activity, the researchers hooked the children up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. The test revealed children who had piano lessons were more sensitive to a series of tones of different pitches, suggesting this is what aided the participants to learn new words.

The piano lessons did not, however, appear to change a child’s IQ, which the researchers used as a basis to measure their cognitive ability. Neither did it improve their attention span or working memory. 

Nevertheless, the piano lessons were such a success that the Beijing school continued them.

Robert Desimone, senior author of the study and director of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research explained in a statement: "The children didn't differ in the more broad cognitive measures, but they did show some improvements in word discrimination, particularly for consonants. The piano group showed the best improvement there.”

The team concluded musical training helps to improve language skills, and could even be more beneficial than giving children additional reading lessons. 

Dr. Desimone hopes the results will persuade educational institutions debating dropping music lessons to reconsider.

"There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognizing differences between sounds including speech sounds, it's better than extra reading. That means schools could invest in music and there will be generalization to speech sounds," Dr. Desimone said. "It's not worse than giving extra reading to the kids, which is probably what many schools are tempted to do—get rid of the arts education and just have more reading."

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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