Moving to the beat... (Port of San Diego/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Port of San Diego/Creative Commons via Flickr)

People who’ve got rhythm might have an edge when it comes to language and reading skills.

A new study in “The Journal of Neuroscience” shows the brains of people who can move to a musical beat react to speech on a more consistent basis than those who don’t, a finding that implies musical training could sharpen the brain’s response to language.

The researchers say their findings provide the first biological link between the capabilities of keeping a beat and how the brain responds to speech, something that can have substantial implications for reading ability.

To make their findings the research team recruited more than 100 teenagers who lived in the Chicago, Illinois, area.

A drummer keeping the beat going strong (Kris Krug/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Kris Krug/Creative Commons via Flickr)

The teens were given two tests.  First, they were instructed to listen to and tap their fingers along to the beat of a metronome.  The researchers calculated how accurately their young volunteers were able to tap along to the musical timekeeper.

For the second test, the teen subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) device,which measures electrical activity in the brain.

The EEG device was focused on an area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is also connected to parts of the brain responsible for motor-movement. The scientists recorded the brainwaves as their teen subjects listened to the synthesized speech sound da, which was repeated at intervals over a half-hour period.

The researchers were able to determine how the nerve cells in that particular region of the brain responded every time the da sound was played.

“Across this population of adolescents, the more accurate they were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brains’ response to the da syllable was,” said Nina Kraus, the director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory and co-author of the study.

Are language and reading skills enhanced the ability to keep a beat? (Eunice-Sleepyneko/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Eunice-Sleepyneko/Creative Commons via Flickr)

While past studies have demonstrated the relation between reading prowess and a person’s ability to keep a beat, the researchers said their new findings show hearing is what provides a common basis for those links.

“Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language,” Kraus said. “It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read.”

The researchers are already expanding their studies with a multi-year project involving children who are being musically trained. They’ll assess the effect musical training has on beat synchronization, brain response consistency, and reading skills.