Music Ability Helps Reading

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Wall Street Journal, february 18, 2013

Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders such as dyslexia, says a study in the journal Neuropsychologia. Musicians generally outperform nonmusicians on cognitive tests, but little is known about the effects of reading musical notes on the brain's circuitry as it relates to reading, researchers said.

Fifteen professional musicians who had played an instrument since childhood and 15 control subjects who couldn't read music participated in two experiments in Milan. Subjects were 26 to 31 years old. In one experiment, subjects pressed a button if they recognized the notes E, F, G, A and B (mi, fa, sol, la and ti on the musical scale) which randomly appeared in 300 short musical scores flashed on a computer screen. In the other experiment, they pressed the button when they spotted the letters B, G, L, M and S in 300 randomly selected words. An electroencephalogram (EEG) measured brain-wave activity.

Musicians recognized notes significantly faster than controls and letters only slightly faster. Musicians made fewer errors in both experiments. But EEG results showed striking differences. In musicians, reading musical notes and words activated both the left and right sides of the brain, whereas in controls, only the left side responded to words and the right side to notes. Language is normally a left-brain function and music a right-brain function. The involvement of the right side in a typically left-sided function probably resulted from reading music, researchers said. Musical training may be quite helpful for children struggling to read, they said.

Caveat: The differences in brain activation may be due to the controls' inability to read musical scores, researchers said. Spatial abilities may differ between the two groups due to musicians' practice of reading music, they said. The study was small.

From Wall Street Journal