Does Rhythm and Music Make Better Readers?

We’ve all seen them.  Dancing baby videos.  As soon as the music begins, away those chubby little legs go, jamming to the beat.  I dare you to look away from the irresistible cuteness.  You can’t do it, can you?


Whether that diaper-clad star of the show moves in time with the beat or not really makes no difference.  When music takes complete possession of the little bambino’s body we become instantly spellbound with joy.


Is your child adorably uncoordinated? Non-rhythmic young learners may be telling us there's something amiss with their auditory processing system. Is this a clue to future learning difficulties? Find out what the research says about rhythm, music and learning and what you might do to shift your child's learning abilities.


Is your child the kind who dances in perfect rhythm when you turn on the tunes?  Or do you have a wild child on your hands, flailing this way and that without much awareness of timing or coordination?


Wild child or not, it’s adorable, right?  Ah yes, but what if this heartwarming display of asynchrony is actually a clue to future learning difficulties?


What if uncoordinated, non-rhythmic young dancers are telling us there might be something amiss with their auditory processing system?


The research in this area is quite fascinating.


How Research Connects Rhythm, Music and Learning

According to one study,

“Children who struggle to move synchronously to a beat may have poorer neural representation of sounds.”


Poor interpretation of sounds then translates to poor recognition of subtle differences between phonemes (/b/ vs. /p/, for example), which then translates to much more difficulty learning to read.


In this particular study, the research authors grouped preschool subjects into Synchronizers vs. Non-synchronizers.  The results?

“Synchronizers had better perceptual and cognitive language skills than Non-synchronizers.”


Is musical training the key then?  The author of an fMRI study measuring executive brain function believes so.

“… our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.”


Important to note (no pun intended), musical training is more effective earlier in life than later.


According to a Concordia University study,

“Musical training earlier than the age of seven has a significant impact on the development of the brain.  Those who began musical training early had more powerful connections between motor regions – the parts of the brain that aid in planning and executing movements.”


Uh oh.  Is it too late for your hopelessly uncoordinated, non-musical, older struggling learner?


Maybe not.


Researchers studying adolescents found that in-school music training accelerates neurodevelopment.

“Although phonological processing improved in both the music training and active control groups, the enhancement was greater in adolescents who underwent music training.  Thus, music training initiated as late as adolescence can enhance neural processing of sound and confer benefits for language skills.”


Researchers Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus conclude that when it comes to both reading and beat synchronization, it’s all about the timing.


In order for us to discern the difference between similar sounding letters like b and p, for instance, our auditory systems must process the tiny timing differences between them.  Not only that, but we must process the subtle differences consistently every time.


If we suffer from what they refer to as “timing jitter,“ or inconsistency in processing the timing of sounds (think of a clock that can’t keep proper time), then confusing b for p, m for n, and t for d, may happen quite frequently.

“… we find that subjects who are able to consistently synchronize their movements to a beat have auditory brainstem responses that are also more consistent and show less timing jitter between trials.”


So What Does It all Mean?

The results of all of these studies, as often is the case, suggest that more research is needed.  We clearly cannot say that giving your child music lessons will transform your non-reader into a reader.


However, if your child does have trouble tapping or moving to a beat, music may be one more tool to add to your intervention toolbox.


Looking for even more tools to add to your arsenal?  Check out The Free Printables Collection.


Really digging the research articles?  Read more Research and Fun Facts here.


(If you’re looking for article references, please follow each link above.)