Making Music Boosts Brain's Language Skills

Music fine-tunes certain language abilities in the brain, new research shows.

Do you have trouble hearing people talk at cocktail parties? Try practicing the piano before you leave the house.

Musicians—from karaoke singers to professional cello players—are better able to hear targeted sounds in a noisy environment, according to new research that adds to evidence that music makes the brain work better.

"In the past ten years there's been an explosion of research on music and the brain," Aniruddh Patel, the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said today at a press briefing.

Most recently brain-imaging studies have shown that music activates many diverse parts of the brain, including an overlap in where the brain processes music and language. (Listen to global beats at Nat Geo Music.)

Language is a natural aspect to consider in looking at how music affects the brain, Patel said. Like music, language is "universal, there's a strong learning component, and it carries complex meanings."

Above the Din

For example, brains of people exposed to even casual musical training have an enhanced ability to generate the brain wave patterns associated with specific sounds, be they musical or spoken, said study leader Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Kraus' previous research had shown that when a person listens to a sound, the brain wave recorded in response is physically the same as the sound wave itself. In fact "playing" the brain wave produces a nearly identical sound.

But for people without a trained ear for music, the ability to make these patterns decreases as background noise increases, experiments show. Musicians, by contrast, have subconsciously trained their brains to better recognize selective sound patterns, even as background noise goes up.

The overall effect is like a person learning to drive a manual transmission, Kraus said.

"When you first learn to drive a car, you have to think about the stick shift, the clutch, all the different parts," Kraus told National Geographic News. "But once you know, your body knows how to drive almost automatically."

(Related: "Beyond the Brain" in National Geographic magazine.)

At the same time, people with certain developmental disorders, such as dyslexia, have a harder time hearing sounds amid the din—a serious problem, for example, for students straining to hear the teacher in a noisy classroom.

Musical experience could therefore be a key therapy for children with dyslexia and similar language-related disorders, Kraus said today at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Singing Music's Praises

In a similar vein, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has found that stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak can be trained to say hundreds of phrases by singing them first.

In research also presented today at the AAAS meeting, Schlaug demonstrated the results of intensive musical therapy on patients with lesions on the left sides of their brains, those areas most associated with language.

Before the therapy, these stroke patients responded to questions with largely incoherent sounds and phrases. But after just a few minutes with therapists, who asked them to sing phrases and tap their hands to the rhythm, the patients could sing "Happy Birthday," recite their addresses, and communicate if they were thirsty.

"The underdeveloped systems on the right side of the brain that respond to music became enhanced and changed structures," Schlaug said at the press briefing.

Success varied depending on how recently a person had had a stroke and the severity of the damage, he noted. But several patients were eventually able to teach themselves new words and phrases by turning them into tunes, and few were even able to move beyond simple phrases and give short speeches.

Overall, Schlaug said, the experiments show that "music might be an alternative medium for engaging parts of the brain that are otherwise not engaged."

Northwestern's Kraus agreed. She added that musical training, whatever the age, should be universally encouraged, since it can play a key role in education, clinical therapies, and even in protective measures for keeping the brain sharp as people age.

"Plus," she said, "it's just inherently wonderful."