Boosting language processing with song 

By Adithi Ramakrishnan 

In the movie “Finding Nemo,” Mr. Ray takes his aquatic pupils on a journey through the ocean. To teach them the names of the plant and animals they encounter along the way, he uses the medium of song: putting the names to a tune and beat.


Research into the brain's act of phase-locking shows how singing can enable better comprehension. Credit: U.S. Dept. of Education

Why might Mr. Ray sing to his students instead of simply speaking to teach them? Music has a more regular beat than normal conversation, and a stable rhythm can make language easier to learn, according to Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario who studies the effects of singing on language processing. 

In her latest study, Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden found that our brains sync up with words and phrases better if they are sung rather than spoken in certain situations. The researcher sees implications of her work in the classroom, where presenting information in the form of song could help students with language-processing disorders (LPDs) more easily lock onto listening and learning. Marc Joanisse and Jessica Grahn from the same university also coauthored the study. 

“The rhythms of speech are a lot more irregular than in music,” Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden said. “Maybe if we take an utterance and we put it to song, those rhythms would help [students with LPDs] predict when that next syllable was coming.” 

Phase-Locking 

Much of Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden’s research is based on phase-locking. While listening to a conversation or a song, our brainwaves pulse in an effort to imitate the same pattern of sound waves. The better the brainwave activity aligns to the signals of the vocal source, the better we understand what we hear. 

In her study, the researcher recruited 23 participants, ages 17-27, to listen to spoken and sung sentences conducted at a normal speed or sped up by 50 percent. The faster speech mimicked a situation in which words or music might be harder to hear—such as when a teacher is speaking quickly in a noisy classroom. 

Using electroencephalography to track her subjects’ brain signals, the researcher found that when the sentence audio was sped up, participants were better at tracking the rhythms when the information was sung instead of spoken. 

Such research could lead to music and rhythm-based classroom interventions, particularly for students who struggle to appropriately track the rhythms of speech. Children with dyslexia, for example, have trouble phase-locking to speech, and children with autism tend to have a hard time inhibiting pitch information that is irrelevant in typical speech. Singing and music could help these listeners hone in on the rhythm and relevant pitch of what they hear to predict the next syllable. 

Singing: A Strategy to Increase Comprehension 

Some teachers and music educators apply elements of singing to boost student comprehension in the classroom. Speech pathologist Anida Levesque in Virginia, who has been incorporating rhythmic exercises into her work with children for more than 20 years, uses pacing boards with students at Sterling Middle School to help them tap out the syllables of words. 

“If students are having a hard time [with language], let’s put it to music, let’s add some kind of rhythm to it,” Levesque said, “because you do see a lot more progress with that.” 

Singing to enhance language processing can also be found in the work of Deborah Sunya Moore, an arts educator and vice president of the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education center in Western New York. 

Her work, geared toward students in grades PreK-2, explores the relationship between singing and reading comprehension. She does this by singing words of picture books to a steady beat and encouraging her listeners to tap along with her. She trains teachers to read stories in the same way. 

“We know that music is successful as a mnemonic device. When we think of, ‘How do we learn the alphabet?’ By singing, because it’s just easier to remember,” Moore said. 

Still, not much is known about exactly how singing helps students to better process language. 

“There’s not a lot of research on how we differentiate between music and language in terms of the acoustic properties,” said Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden, adding that her research is “really trying to get at this question of, ‘How could music be a tool for improving language processing?’” 

Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden is now collecting data relating to phase-locking in dyslexic children as she continues to, in the words of Nemo’s friend Dory, “keep swimming” toward discovering in neurological detail how singing can improve language comprehension. 

Adithi Ramakrishnan is a neuroscience major and creative writing minor at the College of William and Mary. She is a Pulitzer Center Student Fellow, executive editor at her college newspaper, the Flat Hat, and a contributor to Massive Science. Email her at aramakrishnan@email.wm.edu

This story was produced as part of NASW's David Perlman Summer Mentoring Program, which was launched in 2020 by our Education Committee. Ramakrishnan was mentored by Jodi Ackerman Frank.


Adithi Ramakrishnan

Jodi Ackerman Frank
Sep. 17, 2020

Drexel University Online