Music and auditory skills can hone cognition and language

It may seem counterintuitive that your ability to tell different sounds apart would have anything to do with your ability to read or handle cognitive challenges. But that’s exactly what the lab of Nadine Gaab, PhD, has been showing.

Gaab discussed the research during a recent Longwood Seminar on Music as Medicine at Harvard Medical School:

The Gaab Lab has amassed an impressive body of work showing that auditory processing impairments correlate with developmental dyslexia, and that people who can detect tiny differences between sounds seem to do better both as musicians and as readers.

One study of musicians, for example, showed that they have enhanced syllable discrimination when listening to synthetic speech.

On the flip side, children who identified extra sounds in chords tended to have more learning and reading problems, and this predicted their ability to read and write in fourth grade.“We think this might be a convenient tool for detecting children at risk,” Gaab told the audience.

Could musical training turn this around?

Maybe so. Gaab’s team has published work indicating that auditory training can alter brain markers that predict dyslexia, and that people with musical training have greater executive functioning skills—those brain functions that allow us to quickly process and retain information, plan, curb impulses, make good choices, solve problems and adjust to changing cognitive demands.

Gaab acknowledges that we need more long-term studies to investigate whether there’s really a causative effect or just an association. “We don’t know if someone already had really good auditory processing skills, and that’s why they became a musician, or that musical training improved their auditory processing skills,” she said. Similarly, it could be that children who already have good executive functioning abilities are more attracted to music.

But Gaab is passionate about the importance of music in education. “It’s important to consider that replacing musical programs with reading or math instruction in order to boost standardized test scores may actually lead to deficient scores in other cognitive areas,” she said. “Maybe we’re eliminating exactly the curricula that are important for very basic cognitive skills.”

To participate in studies in Gaab’s lab, email gaablab@tch.harvard.edu or join the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience participant database.