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How are music and language linked?

Developments in neuroscience have enabled researchers to discover that we use the same regions of our brains to process aspects of music and language. 

The similarities between music and language are that they both:

  • are an acoustic signal that we hear and interpret
  • have a rhythm and tune, with rising and falling patterns (this is 'intonation' in speech)
  • are structured by differences in sounds that resonate at different frequencies
  • have an underlying structure - researchers are looking into similarities in the way that our brains interpret musical phrases and  grammar and structure sentences.

This blog explores more about how music links with language development and how we as practitioners can support this.

Links between sounds and language

We know that babies' hearing is developed by 27 weeks in the womb and studies have found that babies had a positive response to music and sounds they heard in the womb. This feature helps babies to prepare for the world they're coming in to and aids with attunement to their environment and the people in it. Equally, babies respond more strongly to their caregivers' voices, showing that they notice the differences between voices and speech patterns.

This ability to tune in to music and sound are laying the foundations for babies' speech, language and communication development. Babies tune in to environmental sounds, which leads into tuning into the sounds for speech. Babies younger than six months tune into the sounds of any language, but then after that respond more strongly to the sounds of the language(s) they hear around them most.

Music and early literacy development

Music and rhythm have a role to play in early literacy development. Phonological awareness skills develop from syllable, to onset-rime (e.g. m - at, c-at, f-all, w- all), to phoneme. These skills tend to begin at age 3 and continue through to the development of early reading skills at ages 6 and 7. Phonological awareness relies on hearing the differences and similarities between sounds in words and being aware of these patterns. Developing these skills can support children's ability with reading and, later on, spelling.

A study into the relationship between keeping a steady beat and literacy development showed that 'children who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat'. Research is ongoing to see how supporting musical skills can impact on literacy development.

Musical ability and learning new languages

Recent research in Finland has found that children who played a musical instrument picked up new languages more quickly. They found that musical training helps children to tune in and learn the speech sounds of a new language more quickly and easily, and also to learn different grammar patterns.

Reflecting on practice

Supporting children's language and early literacy skills:

  • Are there opportunities every day for children to sing songs and learn nursery rhymes so that they become familiar with the tunes for these?
  • Do children have access to musical instruments and soundmakers to experiment and play with sound?
  • Are there opportunities for them to hear the differences between sounds and also to copy rhythms and sounds patterns?
  • Do you clap out or beat out the syllables in words and learn the sounds that make up new words?
  • Are there opportunities for children to hear rhyming stories and to hear different onset and rhyme patterns (e.g. cat/hat/mat/sat/rat)? Could you ‘chunk’ the parts together, leaving gaps between phrases
  • Do you emphasise the rhyming words and when a child is familiar with a nursery rhyme, try leaving out a rhyming word to see if the child can remember it?

For more ideas look at I CAN's Early Talkers boxset. You can also download I CAN's factsheet on speech sounds, which has some tips about sound games. 

In summary

The same regions of our brain process music and language and research is ongoing into how supporting aspects of musical development can help children develop early literacy skills. In the meantime we know that early years practitioners have a vital role to play in enhancing children's early language and literacy development through songs, rhymes  and music activities. 

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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