Music training, with its pervasive effects on the nervous system's ability to process sight and sound, may be more important for enhancing verbal communication skills than learning phonics, according to a new Northwestern University study.
Musicians use all of their senses to practice and perform a musical piece. They watch other musicians, read lips, and feel, hear and perform music, thus, engaging multi-sensory skills. As it turns out, the brain's alteration from the multi-sensory process of music training enhances the same communication skills needed for speaking and reading, the study concludes.
“Audiovisual processing was much enhanced in musicians' brains compared to non-musician counterparts, and musicians also were more sensitive to subtle changes in both speech and music sounds,” said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern's Auditory
Neuroscience Laboratory, where the work was performed. “Our study indicates that the high-level cognitive processing of music affects automatic processing that occurs early in the processing stream and fundamentally shapes sensory circuitry.”
The nervous system's multi-sensory processing begins in the brainstem, an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain previously thought to be relatively unmalleable.
“Musicians have a specialized neural system for processing sight and sound in the brainstem, the neural gateway to the brain,” said Northwestern doctoral student Gabriella Musacchia, lead author of the study.
For many years, scientists believed that the brainstem simply relayed sensory information from the ear to the cortex, a part of the brain known for cognitive processing.
Because the brainstem offers a common pathway that processes music and speech, the study suggests that musical training conceivably could help children develop literacy skills and combat literacy disorders.
The study, “Musicians Have Enhanced Subcortical Auditory and Audiovisual Processing of Speech and Music,” will be published online the week of Sept. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The co-investigators are Gabriella Musacchia, Mikko Sams, Erika Skoe and Nina Kraus.
Study participants, who had varying amounts of musical training or none at all, wore scalp electrodes that measured their multi-sensory brain responses to audio and video of a cellist playing and a person speaking.
The data showed that the number of years that a person practiced music strongly correlated with enhanced basic sound encoding mechanisms that also are relevant for speech. Beyond revealing super-accurate pitch coding vital to recognizing a speaker's identity and emotional intent, the study showed enhanced transcription of timbre and timing cues common to speech and music.
“The study underscores the extreme malleability of auditory function by music training and the potential of music to tune our neural response to the world around us, ” Kraus said.
Previous research has shown brainstem transcription errors in some children with literacy disorders.
Since music is inherently more accessible to children than phonics, the new research suggests, music training may have considerable benefits for engendering literacy skills.