Written by Lana Van Boven, M.S. CCC-SLP

Music and language share many features. Scientists from diverse fields have devoted entire careers to figuring out how these two unique domains of human behavior are related. Psychologists, neuroscientists, music educators, ethnomusicologists, and linguists (just to name a few) have spent years examining questions such as “Which evolved first? Singing or speaking?”, “Are musician brains different than non-musician brains?”, “Is music based on language or is language based on music?” and “Can music make us smarter?”.

Thanks to this research we now know that music and language are processed in different but overlapping areas of the brain. We know that they share similar properties such as pitch contours, temporal patterns, loudness variations. We also know that there is an association between musical experience and increased performance in non-musical domains, such as academics. We know that music elicits powerful physiological responses, enhances memory and learning effects, and has therapeutic benefits for people with dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders.

In my clinical practice a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) I see the power of the music and language connection on a daily basis. Prior to becoming an SLP I studied music intensively; first as a classical voice performance music major (which involved hours in practice rooms and on stage) and later as a music educator working with preschool children and teaching parent/child music classes. Following this I entered the research world as a research assistant at the University of Washington Infant Hearing Lab, where we conducted psychological studies that investigated how infants perceive pitch changes. Throughout the long and winding road of my career, I have repeatedly seen how music can help children learn to communicate more effectively. I have seen children who are struggling to regulate their emotions find a calm state after hearing a few chords on the guitar. I have seen children combine two words together for the first time, simply by singing the words instead of speaking them.

During my therapy sessions with kids, I take advantage of numerous features of music that support their communication goals. Here are just a few of the benefits that music adds to therapy:

1) Music slows down the rate that information is presented: If you are in a non-awkward location (and have too much time on your hands) try this quick experiment. First, speak the sentence “Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are” at your normal speech rate. Then sing the same line to the well-known tune. If you’re really ambitious (or bored) try timing each to see which lasts longer. Unless you speak like James Earl Jones, you most likely took far longer to sing the sentence than to speak it. Now imagine a child who is struggling to discriminate basic speech sounds and words, or a child who requires a longer time to process information. For these children, a slight increase in timing can make a BIG difference! If you’ve ever learned a new language you know it is far easier to understand people who speak slowly than those who speak quickly. Children with communication disorders often have to work harder to understand elements of language that come easily to typically developing children. Slowing down the speech signal can often reduce some of that workload.

2) Music highlights and exaggerates the important acoustic qualities of speech: Speech has a melody of its own referred to as prosody. As an example, trying saying the same phrase with two different accents: “She is here TODAY?” verses “She is HERE today!”. We instinctively infuse these accents into our speech by making subtle changes in the pitch, loudness and timing of our voices.   And without these changes, speech becomes dull, flat, and far more difficult to attend to and comprehend.  A perfect example of this is the infamously monotone teacher from the movie “Ferris Beuller’s day off” (this will only make sense if you’re old like me and actually remember that movie).

When we sing a phrase such as “my Bonnie lies over the ocean”, we exaggerate the pitch differences between each syllable or each word. I regularly use this aspect of music to help kids with expressive language delays increase their language production skills. For example, if I’m working with a child who is only producing single words at age 3, I will sing word combinations for them to imitate. So instead of just saying “blue car” or “big dog” I sing each word on a different pitch, making it a two-note song. This pitch difference highlights that the words are two separate units of meaning, rather than one mumbled cluster of sounds that are difficult to differentiate.

3) Music provides structure and repetition to support learning: During typical language development, infants and toddlers are constantly taking data about how words and sounds are organized and sequenced. They are incredible little sponges, and they learn how their native language works by detecting the patterns in speech of those around them. Through a complex system of neurological processing, infants collect data about which patterns occur most often and learn to direct attention to those patterns. For example, infants being raised in English-speaking homes learn that people usually say the color of a thing before the name of the thing (e.g. blue car, red truck). Kids being raised around other languages might learn the opposite pattern.

When a child has a language delay or disorder, this data collection process is often not as efficient.   This leads them to have trouble learning the patterns that typically developing children pick up through environmental language exposure. Putting these patterns into the context of a song makes the patterns easier to recognize and learn, because the pattern is typically presented at a slower rate with multiple successive repetitions. Songs such as “The Farmer in the Dell” and “If you’re happy and you know it” are essentially teaching children a simple sentence structure by repeating that structure in each verse.

These are just a few of the many ways that music supports communication development, and this post is my introduction to a weekly blog series I will be sharing about how to take advantage of these factors. My hope is that these strategies and songs will be a beneficial resource for parents, SLPs, teachers, ABA therapists, and anyone who works with children.

During this series of posts, I will share music and music-based activities to support a range of skills. Topics covered will include how to use music to help students:

  • follow directions
  • understanding basic concepts (spatial terms, colors, numbers, descriptive terms)
  • increase vocabulary
  • learn accurate sentence structures
  • learn grammatical forms such as plurals and irregular past tense verbs
  • learn and implement self-regulation strategies
  • increase mean length of utterance (official SLP speak for how much you say at one time)
  • Produce speech sounds accurately

I am open to requests and ideas, so please feel free to comment here with your thoughts! What concepts do you struggle to teach your students or clients? What directions do you wish they could understand more easily?

Last, here are some fantastic articles and resources about the connections between music and language development:

Can Listening to Music Help Your Child with Language Development and Reading Comprehension? https://psychcentral.com/lib/can-listening-to-music-help-your-child-with-language-development-and-reading-comprehension/

Music and Early Language Acquisition https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439120/

How Music Helps Language Acquisition http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/02/how_music_helps_language_acquisition.html

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