21 February 2010

Music boosts brain development

There is strong evidence to show that music lessons help children improve their language skills, according to neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus.

She has led the first research to demonstrate that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brain's sensitivity to speech sounds.

The benefits could help normal children as well as those with developmental problems such as dyslexia and autism, she argues.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California, Prof Kraus said: "Playing an instrument may help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice.

"Cash-strapped school districts are making a mistake when they cut music from the curriculum."

At her laboratory at Northwestern University in Everston, Illinois, researchers developed a way to show how the nervous system responds to the acoustic properties of speech and music sounds with sub-millisecond precision.

They found the effectiveness with which the nervous system interprets sound patterns is linked to musical ability.

"Playing music engages the ability to extract relevant patterns, such as the sound of one's own instrument, harmonies and rhythms, from the 'soundscape,' said Prof Kraus. "Not surprisingly, musicians' nervous systems are more effective at utilising the patterns in music and speech alike." Previously her team found that sensitivity to sound patterns correlates with reading skill and the ability to hear speech against background noise.

"People's hearing systems are fine-tuned by the experiences they've had with sound throughout their lives," said Prof Kraus. "Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We've found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion."

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