Using Music And Rhythm To Develop Grammar : Shots - Health News Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center are studying how music and rhythm activities could help children who struggle with grammar and language development.
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Using Music And Rhythm To Help Kids With Grammar And Language

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Using Music And Rhythm To Help Kids With Grammar And Language

Using Music And Rhythm To Help Kids With Grammar And Language

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This week, we're exploring the intersection of music and neuroscience. It's an active field full of researchers and students who think of themselves as musician scientists.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Your children...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you, but they are not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

SIEGEL: These four women all work at the Music Cognition Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. The singing is for pleasure, but their work is about music. Assistant professor Reyna Gordon runs the lab. She's singing second soprano. She's a neuroscientist in the department of otolaryngology. Gordon studies music, language and the brain, something she was curious about when she was an aspiring opera singer.

REYNA GORDON: I moved to Italy when I finished my bachelor of music, and I started to take more linguistics classes and to think really about language in the brain and music in the brain and what was happening in our brains when we were listening to music, when we were listening to singing, what was happening in my brain when I was singing.

SIEGEL: She says a combination of curiosity about those questions and stage fright as a singer led her to a graduate program in France in Marseille.

GORDON: When I got there, the first day I got to see some pilot work that was being done. They were using electroencephalography, so EEG, putting sensors on the head to noninvasively measure brain activity while people were listening to sentences and while people were listening to musical excerpts. And I was instantly hooked.

SIEGEL: At Vanderbilt, she's part of the interdisciplinary program for Music, Mind & Society. Dr. Gordon has found a correlation in children between good rhythm skills and a good grasp of grammar. Children who can detect rhythmic variations in music also tend to have an easier time putting sentences together. She's investigating the connection between those two skills.

GORDON: One thing that rhythm and grammar have in common is that they both unfold over time, and our brains form expectancies about what's coming up based on what we just heard.

SIEGEL: Think of listening to a piece of music and keeping rhythm. For example, this anthem of Suzuki music lessons played here by Vanderbilt medical student Alex Chern.

ALEX CHERN: (Playing violin).


GORDON: If we start to clap together, within a couple of claps, you'll have expectancies for the timing, and you'll be able to clap along to what's coming next.

SIEGEL: Same thing with grammar, according to Professor Gordon.

GORDON: If we hear words that have a particular grammatical function, we have expectancies for the words that are coming up after that.

SIEGEL: So an example of that.

GORDON: The boy read the book that his mother gave to him would be a complex sentence that's unfolding over time. When we hear the boy read, then we're expecting an object after that. And then when we hear the boy read the book that, then we're expecting an additional clause after that.

SIEGEL: Something about the book.

GORDON: Something else about the book, yeah.

SIEGEL: Reyna Gordon says that by age 5, children typically use and understand complex sentences like that one but not all kids. She says research shows that 7 percent of children cannot. They have what's called developmental language disorder or specific language impairment.

GORDON: They have some grammar, but they haven't acquired it at the same rate of their peers, so expressing complex ideas, especially as they start to go through school, is difficult.

SIEGEL: And these are not kids with especially low IQs or...

GORDON: Nope, they have IQ in the normal range.

SIEGEL: They don't have autism.

GORDON: They don't have autism. Their hearing is normal. Their brains are just a little bit different.

SIEGEL: Some of these kids might already be seeing speech therapists. Professor Gordon wants to see if in addition music and rhythm training can help. Her lab is studying kids with language impairment and also kids who don't have it. They're using EEGs and various tests for both rhythm and grammar. Here's research analyst Allison Aaron with 7-year-old Adalyn Patel who can create complex sentences. They're looking at a picture book.

ALLISON AARON: The dog ran to the door and was barking. What does the boy think? Start with he.

ADALYN PATEL: He thinks the dog is barking at something that's not there.

AARON: Great thinking; next page.

SIEGEL: How might a child with developmental language disorder answer?


AARON: What does the boy think?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: He - he's barking.

AARON: What does the boy think?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know.

AARON: Just guess.


SIEGEL: All true statements but not stated in complex sentences. Adalyn also does well on a test of speech rhythms.



ADALYN: Ma ma ma.



ADALYN: Ma ma ma.

AARON: Good job. Repeat it exactly how you hear it.



ADALYN: Ma ma ma.

SIEGEL: Children with language impairment may have a harder time detecting those variations in timing and intonation.






SIEGEL: Professor Reyna Gordon's lab at Vanderbilt has assessed around 50 children for this study. She says in children with language impairment, sensitivity to the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of music is less developed.

GORDON: So we were wondering if this was something that we could change and whether that would then have an impact on their language development.

SIEGEL: Which takes us back to Suzuki at a more elementary level.

SARA JOHNSON: OK, ready, go.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Playing violin).

JOHNSON: We were mostly on the A.

SIEGEL: Sarah Johnson teaches this group lesson, a Suzuki violin class. The students, Luke Ryan, Adrian Rodriguez and Mackenzie Stamper, range in age from 6 to 8. They've all undergone assessments in Dr. Gordon's lab and shown weaknesses in rhythm and grammar skills.

JOHNSON: What's a rhythm we can play these letters on?


SIEGEL: These kids also get one-on-one lessons and ultimately five months of learning violin.

JOHNSON: Or this one (playing violin).

SIEGEL: After 30 minutes of Suzuki, there's a half hour movement class led by Lyn Bingham on piano.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Flick, flick, flick, flick, flick, flick, glide. Flick, flick, flick, flick, flick, flick, glide.


SIEGEL: The idea is to move to the music, to start and stop, to glide and make flicking or punching gestures on cue. Right now, all of these lessons are paid for by grants.


SIEGEL: Professor Reyna Gordon says the project has already gotten past some anticipated obstacles. The children show up for the lessons, they practice at home and their parents are supportive. Mackenzie's mother, Megan Stamper, sees progress already.

MEGAN STAMPER: She was having trouble understanding what you're saying, and with these classes that she's taking, it's really helping her to unlock that channel of listening, focusing, taking directions.

SIEGEL: Reyna Gordon says it's too early to proclaim success, but she is encouraged by what she's seen.

GORDON: There may be something that music training can do to help boost things, so maybe we're able to boost their auditory skills, their auditory processing skills in the brain or something about the rhythm sensitivity in their everyday listening to language and that could bootstrap improvements. We don't know yet, so we actually have a whole series of questions to look at. And while we're in these initial stages, I think that, you know, music is a fun thing and, you know, if the families are enjoying it, it's a good program to do.

BINGHAM: Are you ready?



SIEGEL: In recent years, studies of music and neuroscience have taken off. There's better brain imaging, better data processing. There's more public recognition of this kind of work and more funding for it. Part of the Vanderbilt project's funding comes from the National Institutes of Health. We'll hear from the director of NIH and his musical collaborator, opera singer Renee Fleming, on tomorrow's program.

BINGHAM: (Playing piano).


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