I got rhythm, I got music. . . I got READING

Why study music, cont.

George and Ira Gershwin wrote the famous “I Got Rhythm, I Got Music” in 1930.  Little did they know that, over 80 years later, a neuroscientist named Nina Kraus and her colleagues at the Auditory Neuroscience lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University would show a connection between rhythm, music — and reading.  Before we get to the reading part, let’s digress for a few moments and talk about synchronization and rhythm.

Timing and rhythm

Most of us are able to keep time to a beat.  We dance to music, we clap to a beat, we tap our fingers to a catchy tune – even if we’re hearing it in our mind. Synchronizing to a beat is about timing – matching your beat at the exact point in time to the sound of someone else’s beat or to a musical beat.  One must precisely match a sound (auditory) with a movement (motor).

Even infants love to move to music.  They hear music and their entire bodies begin  to move. Infants can’t synchronize exactly because they don’t yet have the muscle control to match the auditory signal, but the twins below are clearly hearing the beat and their bodies want to move to it.  The impetus to move to music is universal. 

(There is a condition called beat deafness, in which a person is unable to distinguish musical rhythms or move to them.  It is extremely rare;  if interested, you can read about it at Keeping the beat – or not.)

When a child learns to play a musical instrument, he is fine-tuning his sense of timing, activating the neural circuits in his brain that connect movement to sound.  If we have studied a musical instrument, we no doubt had a teacher who advocated the use of a metronome at an early age and we learned to follow the steady click, whether fast or slow.

If we played in an ensemble, we learned to follow the beat of a conductor, adjusting when he slowed down or got faster, and we learned to play “in sync” with our fellow musicians.

Most of us don’t remember when we learned to keep time to a beat, but researchers have usually said that the ability to synchronize doesn’t happen until a child is about 4 years old.

But listen to 3-yr. old Kazuma playing Taiko.

It takes a lot of coordination to land the sticks or mallets on the drum head exactly in sync with the beat of the other drummers. Not only is Kazuma synchronizing exactly, he is reproducing very complex rhythmic patterns.  To be able to have mastered complex rhythmic patterns and synchronization by the age of 3, Kazuma clearly had been drumming from a much earlier age (actually from the age of 2).  (There is about a minute, from 30 sec. to 1:30 when Kazuma is not playing, but listen to the beginning and again after 1:30.)

Synchronizing to a beat happens more readily in a social situation

Several years ago, a couple of researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig speculated that, since music making and dancing first evolved in human cultures in group situations, perhaps children might be able to synchronize body movements with sound at an earlier age than 4 if they were doing so in a social setting with another person.

So Sebastian Kirschner, a developmental psychologist, and Michael Tomasello, an evolutionary anthropologist, designed a study to test their theory.

They tested three groups of children (2 ½, 3 ½, and 4 ½ years old) in three drumming situations:  drumming with an audio recording, drumming with a video, and drumming with an adult.  They found that children as young as 2 ½  could synchronize to a beat and could spontaneously adjust their tempo to match the beat when they were drumming with an actual person.  

The 2.5 year olds couldn’t synchronize to an audio recording or to a video.  But they could synchronize with an adult who approached it as a sort of game – “can you drum with me?” And children who were 3.5 or 4.5 years old all synchronized with greater accuracy when they were drumming with another person, as opposed to trying to drum with a recording or video.

Taiko is a kind of rhythmic drumming that one learns within a group or with a taiko master.  Kazuma Ban (from the above video) began taiko at the age of 2, watching and imitating Taiko Master Koji Nakamura. His father also plays taiko so he no doubt watched and imitated his father as well.  He was able to learn to synchronize to a beat at such a young age because he was drumming with experienced adults.

Listen to Isaiah Chevrier at the age of 4 months.  He clearly isn’t yet able to synchronize, but his mother (or caregiver) is making music with him, singing and clapping in a rhythm, and Isaiah  is having a great time trying to match his movements with his mother’s clapping and singing.

Then listen to Isaiah at the age of 5.  He has already become a master in playing very complicated Malian djembe rhythms.

Both Kazuma at 3 and Isaiah at 5 are synchronizing expertly with the underlying beat.  But they have also memorized and are reproducing very complex rhythmic patterns.

Reproducing rhythmic patterns involves a different skill set than synchronizing to a beat.  Rhythm is an arrangement of strong and weak pulses within a beat, a pattern in time.  When we study music, we learn, for example, that a waltz has one strong beat and two weaker beats in a pattern (X x x); a march is in a pattern of four (X x x x ).   We learn to subdivide a beat or to play 3 beats in the time of 2, or 4 beats in the time of 5, or to play syncopations off the beat.  We learn to recognize rhythmic patterns of strong and weak pulses and to imitate them.

And that brings us back to the Kraus lab.

In the previous two posts, we looked at the work of Dr. Nina Kraus and her Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University. Kraus and her colleagues have found that the kind of sound experiences we have beginning at an early age and throughout our lives shape, or cause changes in, our brain’s auditory system (neuroplasticity).  Those changes in the auditory system can be negative, as in hearing loss, aging, or disabilities.  But the changes can also be positive, and have been found to be particularly so in people who study music.

The ability to move to a beat is linked to the brain’s response to speech

One of the lab’s areas of interest has been rhythm, and researchers have found that different rhythmic skills have different implications for language ability.  Researchers at the lab looked at the ability to synchronize to a beat and the ability to remember rhythmic patterns and drum along with those patterns.  And they found that both of these rhythmic skills, which are essential in music, also help language skills in different ways.

A study by Kali Woodruff Carr and colleagues at the Lab found that preschoolers (between the ages of 3 and 4) who could synchronize to the beat of an adult researcher had more accurate brainstem processing of speech than children who could not synchronize.  (See previous post about how the Kraus lab measures brainstem response.)  Synchronizers also tested higher on tests of early language skills, such as auditory short-term memory and faster naming of objects and colors.   Those skills are related to language and reading.

Another study from the lab, conducted by Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus with teen-agers, found there is more than one network in the brain that processes rhythm.  The ability to synchronize to a beat and to adapt as the beat changes (faster or slower) involves the cerebellum, basal ganglia and primary motor cortex in the brain.

The ability to remember rhythms and drum along with those rhythms uses the same brain areas as synchronization skills, but incorporates motor planning areas of the brain as well.   And this ability to remember and reproduce rhythms is related to verbal working memory and grammatical skill as well as reading skill.

The studies from the Kraus lab suggest that children who learn to synchronize and match rhythms at an early age have a tremendous advantage in learning language and reading.  And Isaiah and Kazuma show us that synchronizing and remembering rhythms can happen much earlier than previously thought – if the child is making music with an adult.

In New Year – new musical beginnings, I wrote about a study from McMaster University that showed that 6-month olds in interactive music classes with parents showed earlier musical abilities than infants who were in passive listening classes, but they also showed better early communication skills.

From an infant’s earliest moments, parents speak to a child and interact with him verbally as he begins to make sounds.  Learning language is interactive.

What if parents did the same with music – made it interactive from a very early age as Isaiah’s mother was doing with Isaiah at 4 months, or as Kazuma was doing at the age of 2 with taiko drummers?  It doesn’t have to be about drumming.  A child can learn to keep a beat and internalize rhythms when singing nursery rhymes, participating in movement songs, or playing other rhythm instruments, as in the McMaster study above.

Not only would the child become more fluent in music, the music training would lead to better early language skills, which translates to better academic achievement in school.

As a musician, I am a firm believer that music should be studied for its own intrinsic value.  But it’s difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that the study of music confers cognitive advantages in so many other areas.

We don’t know about Isaiah’s or Kazuma’s language skills.  But in the next post, we’re going to look at some school and community projects in which the Kraus Lab has been involved that provide further evidence for the importance of music education for academic achievement.