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Musical Brain Better at Language?

Study Suggests Music Training Boosts Sensitivity to Pitch and May Help Language Learning
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 14, 2007 -- Music lessons may train the brain in ways that make learning language easier.

So say Northwestern University researchers including Patrick Wong, PhD, and Nina Kraus, PhD.

Wong, Kraus, and colleagues studied 10 amateur musicians who had at least six years of musical training, starting when they were 12 or younger.

For comparison, the researchers also studied 10 people who weren't musicians and had no more than three years of musical training.

Participants had a simple task: Watch a videotape while wearing electrodes on their heads to let researchers monitor brain waves in their brain stem, the lower part of the brain. The brain stem's jobs include processing sound.

While the videotape played, the researchers piped the Mandarin Chinese word "mi" into participants' ears every now and then. None of the participants knew Mandarin Chinese.

The word "mi" was randomly presented in three different pitches: high, medium, and low. Each pitch variation is a separate word with different meaning in Mandarin Chinese.

Music and the Brain

The researchers graphed the brain waves in participants' brain stems as the various pitches played.

They found that the brain stems of musicians were more sensitive to the pitch variations than those of the nonmusicians.

"Even with their attention focused on the movie, and though the sounds had no linguistic or musical meaning for them, we found our musically-trained subjects were far better at tracking the three different tones than the nonmusicians," Wong says in a Northwestern University news release.

Playing music involves a different part of the brain, but it appears to tune the brain stem, Kraus notes.

The findings may partly explain musicians' skill at learning language, the researchers suggest.

The study appears in the advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

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