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Musical rhythms shown to improve language processing in children with Developmental Language Disorder

Jul. 12, 2023, 9:48 AM


by Craig Boerner

Musical rhythms can help children with speech and language processing difficulties in finding their voice by improving their capacity to repeat sentences they just heard, according to a npj: Science of Learning study led by a Western Sydney University researcher and co-authored by Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The study was conducted at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France with 15 French speaking children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and 18 typically developing French speaking children without language processing difficulties between the ages of 5 and 13 years.

The children listened to music with regular and irregular rhythms for 30 seconds before being asked to repeat back sets of six sentences as accurately as they could.

Enikő Ladányi, PhD

Study authors found that the children — including those with language problems — were  better at repeating the sentences out loud after they heard the regular musical rhythms, as compared to irregular musical rhythms.

“The study results are an exciting breakthrough that has shed new light on neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically for the advancement of DLD research and speech therapy practice,” said co-author Enikő Ladányi, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of Otolaryngology in the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.

“Limitations in language processing in children with DLD can result in a struggle to understand their peers, teachers, and parents. This can make it difficult to efficiently express their thoughts, which can lead to lifelong consequences in their academic and social lives,” she said.

Co-author and Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab director Reyna Gordon, PhD, said effective speech-language therapy is essential to improving developmental outcomes for children.

“Our findings lay the groundwork for future clinical trials that could test a potential benefit of integrating rhythmic listening into traditional language therapy exercises,” Gordon said.

Researchers used regular rhythms that were at 120 beats per minute in 4/4 time, so the listener would feel the beat two times per second. Irregular rhythms were created by scrambling the regular rhythms so that it was not possible to extract a beat.

Study authors said that there was no difference in performance on a control task that did not involve language, suggesting that the benefit of the regular musical rhythm was specific to the language task itself.

“This finding that regular rhythms can boost sentence repetition is striking, considering that children with developmental language disorder have particular difficulty in repeating sentences out loud, especially when they are grammatically complex,” said co-lead author Anna Fiveash, PhD, a cognitive psychologist from Western Sydney University’s MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development who completed the study while working at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center with co-authors professor Barbara Tillmann and associate professor Nathalie Bedoin from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The study was supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health and the CNRS.

Examples of the regular and irregular musical rhythms used in the study can be accessed here.

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