Language Play: Learning to Play an Instrument Support Language Skills

Hearing, Language, Learning and Music

Wondering how to help encourage kids to practice their musical instruments? See what works for other parents in western MA and suggestions working musicians offer too in Hilltown Families post, “Getting Kids to Practice Their Musical Instruments.” (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

The last two weeks, I participated in an online continuing education training concerning language listening skills. I came away in awe of the new research being done on something that we don’t really think of as necessary to learn. We think of it as something optional to learn or even optional to have available at our schools. All the latest research shows us that learning to play an instrument helps us to listen to language and improves learning and cognitive function throughout our lives! But it’s especially a benefit for kids with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder (listening and understanding language at the level of the brain), specific language impairment, autism, and stroke recovery.

In a three year assessment of kids who had music training vs. those who didn’t, the kids with training did better at reading, speech in noise, and had stronger brain responses to sounds including language. Their brains changed! Of course, the longer the training, the better the cognitive changes, but scientists now know that the effect usually requires at least two years of music training. These results appear to be long term, too. Musicians have much fewer problems when older with hearing in noise, even if they’ve stopped their training at some point. We’re not talking about listening to music; we’re talking about active engagement in learning music. Current research studies are focusing on the effects of singing and drumming on understanding language…

For those wondering how they do research on this, let me explain. We now can chart the activity in the brain in response to sounds by using external electrodes. Because of the way our hearing is wired, our responses are almost identical to what we’re hearing in terms of pitch, timbre, and timing. So, the wave of the sounds we listen to and our electrical brain responses to these sounds look and sound almost the same. Scientists can “play back” the responses and what they hear in playback mimics the original sound. Without getting more technical, scientists can hear and chart responses and in a group of musicians, it’s obvious that the responses are better and stronger.

The researchers stressed that this doesn’t mean that children must be trained to be musicians. Just a few years of enjoyment and music training changes the brain so that attending to pitch, timbre, and timing becomes easier because the brain rewires. There is no window of time here. Anytime you start is beneficial.

Speech-language pathologists can’t test for the hearing problems at the brain level. Tests for dichotic hearing (different sounds or speech in each ear, being able to focus on the sounds in one ear vs. the other), hearing in noise, response to the timing of sounds, and hearing memory require a special set up and an audiologist’s expertise. These are all skills we need for hearing sounds, words, and sentences as well as intonation for emotion and then attach meaning as someone talks to us. And all these skills impact the ability to read and learn new information. Also, because the brain’s developing, the guidelines suggest this testing is only valid from seven years old and up.

We all know that early intervention is best, so from now on I’ll recommend music training to parents and caretakers as a way to jump start an attention to language for all young children.

To go into a bit of depth, hearing in noise is mostly based on our ability to hear the timing of sounds. The research tests used the consonants in “ba” and “ga.” The “b” sound bursts out later than the earlier starting “g.” As we age, although our acuity goes downhill, we use our cognition (like what makes sense for the sentence or topic) and past experiences of timing to guess what was said (that started later so it must have been a “ba”). That’s a top down process. Young kids use the sounds they hear and that’s called bottom up processing. So older people are more dependent on timing to be able to guess as their acuity gets worse. It turned out that people with music training are typically better at attending to the timing in noise and so they’re more successful. They have strong cognitive (top down) skills.

Here are great slideshows by the researchers: Music | Aging

Conversely, there’s also research that points to the importance of hearing well later in life, because when someone can’t hear, it degrades cognition and changes the neurological wiring (not to mention creating isolation, feelings of loss, and depression) which can make them more vulnerable to developing dementia. Auditory decline often precedes dementia. There’s a higher incident of hearing loss in this population than in healthy older people. And they’re finding that hearing aids can actually improve difficult behaviors in people with Alzheimer’s-type dementia.

SO! The big news is that hearing well is very important throughout our lives and there is a pleasurable, fun and researched way to exercise our hearing and auditory brain at any age. And think of all the music this could create. I, for one, would love more music in our world! So fight for your music programs, look for Suzuki programs, and make music with your children!


Screen your hearing in noise.

Recommended apps for Children:

Recommended apps for Adults:


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

4 Comments on “Language Play: Learning to Play an Instrument Support Language Skills

  1. We agree! Learning an instrument early on helps in a lot of different ways, whether you go on to become a professional or not.

  2. Barbara Goodchild teaches Simply Music piano in Shelburne. She has an excellent young child program – very fun, focusing on a love of music and learning musical expression.

  3. Check out A Natural Music School for instrumental lessons!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: