A child’s ability to distinguish musical rhythm is related to his or her capacity for understanding grammar, according to a new study.
Reyna Gordon from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Centre noted that the study is the first of its kind to show an association between musical rhythm and grammar.
Gordon looks forward to the possibilities of using musical education to improve grammar skills.
For example, rhythm could be taken into account when measuring grammar in children with language disorders.
“This may help us predict who would be the best candidate for particular types of therapy or who’s responding the best,” she said.
“Is it the child with the weakest rhythm that needs the most help or is it the child that starts out with better rhythm that will then benefit the most?” said Gordon.
Gordon studied 25 typically developing 6-year-olds, first testing them with a standardised test of music aptitude.
A computer programme prompted the children to judge if two melodies – either identical or slightly different – were the same or different.
Next, the children played a computer game that the research team developed called a beat-based assessment. The children watched a cartoon character play two rhythms, then had to determine whether a third rhythm was played by “Sammy Same” or “Doggy Different.”
To measure the children’s grammar skills, they were shown a variety of photographs and asked questions about them.
They were measured on the grammatical accuracy of their answers, such as competence in using the past tense.
Though the grammatical and musical tests were quite different, Gordon found that children who did well on one kind tended to do well on the other, regardless of IQ, music experience and socioeconomic status.
To explain the findings, Gordon suggested first considering the similarities between speech and music – for example, they each contain rhythm.
In grammar, children’s minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases and sentences and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so.
In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat.
Perhaps children who are better at detecting variations in music timing are also better at detecting variations in speech and therefore have an advantage in learning language, she said.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.