Music and Language: The Work of Nina Kraus

Nina_Kraus_Dialogue.jpgThis week, we posted a Q&A with auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus, who received a Dana Foundation grant to further her study of aspects of music and cognition. She and her colleagues at Northwestern University have discovered, among other things, that synchronization ability, like tapping your foot along to a beat, matches the rapid brain activity linked to reading, language, and phonological skills. Understanding children’s rhythmic strengths and bottlenecks could help teachers help them improve language skills.

It’s an interesting connection—and may not seem so obvious at first. Reading involves your eyes, right? So why would learning to read have anything to do with processing sound?

But we learn to speak before we learn to read. We make sound-to-meaning connections there. As we read the letters on the page, we are connecting those images with the letter sounds. That provides the foundation for later literacy. If there are not good sound-to-meaning connections, if language is not strong, it will be more difficult for a child to learn to read. If we could find a way to strengthen the sound-to-meaning connections in the brain—because, as we know, the brain is very malleable—we might be able to help children learn to read more easily.

Last year, we spoke with her about research on how speaking two or more languages affects brain processing and pathways for the news story “Do Complex Tasks Train Your Brain to be More Efficient?” She described its similarity to music:

Music training ‘awakens’ the musician brain to features of sound and ways of comparing and contrasting sounds that the non-musician brain simply may not be sensitive to. By contrast, juggling two language systems when speaking, listening, and reading trains bilinguals’ cognitive systems. Bilingual advantages are most evident in tasks like these where language is minimized because it is the demands of the language that require their executive systems to be so high-functioning in the first place.

In 2013, she spoke at a Neuroscience and Society event we co-hosted in Washington, DC, on “The Arts and the Brain: What Does Your Brain See? What Does Your Brain Hear?”

While she focused on her work with children, she also mentions work with adults, including some evidence that music practice in childhood can have lasting positive effects even into our later years. As we grow older, “noise in the signal” grows, but “even if you’re an older musician with hearing loss, you can distinguish speech in sound better than an older non-musician without hearing loss,” she said. This improved auditory working memory is mode-specific; older musicians did not show improved visual abilities. Her section starts at 32:26.

She is a great explainer, and is often invited to speak at events like the Kennedy Center’s Sound Health series, helping translate cutting-edge science for non-scientists. Check out a couple of her talks on KC’s YouTube channel: Say it with Rhythm last year (with Mickey Hart and Zakir Hassain), and Music and Childhood Development in 2017. All the talks in the Sound Health series have been stimulating and inspiring: See our recaps for 2018 and 2017 for more.

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