Learning the piano can help improve language skills as well
Learning the piano can improve children’s language skills and could even be more beneficial than extra reading lessons, a new study has found. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that piano lessons for nursery-school age children had a very specific effect on their ability to distinguish different pitches and therefore helped them discriminate between spoken words. The 74 children taking part in the study, which was carried out in Beijing, were divided into three groups: one that received 45-minute piano lessons three times a week; one that received extra reading instruction for the same period of time; and one that received neither intervention. All children were four or five years old and spoke Mandarin as their native language.
After six months, the researchers tested the children on their ability to discriminate words based on differences in vowels, consonants, or tone (many Mandarin words differ only in tone). Better word discrimination usually corresponds with better phonological awareness – the awareness of the sound structure of words – a key component of learning to read. Children who had piano lessons showed a significant advantage over children in the extra reading group in discriminating between words that differ by one consonant. Those children in both the piano group and extra reading group performed better than children who received neither intervention when it came to discriminating words based on vowel differences.
The researchers also used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity and found that children in the piano group had stronger responses than the other children when they listened to a series of tones of different pitch. This suggests that a greater sensitivity to pitch differences is what helped the children who took piano lessons to better distinguish different words. Following the study’s findings, the school involved elected to continue to offer piano lessons to students. “There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognising differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading,” said Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the senior author of the paper.
He suggested schools “could invest in music” rather than ditch arts education in favour of extra reading as is often the case. The MIT team were joined by researchers from the IDG/McGovern Institute at Beijing Normal University and the study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Previous research has shown that, on average, musicians perform better than non-musicians on tasks such as reading comprehension but these were only based on asking about people’s past musical training. The MIT researchers decided to perform a more controlled study. Desimone’s future research will be performing EEG tests before and after a single intense music lesson to see how the brain’s activity has been altered.
By Jane Clinton, iNews