Music and Neurosciences V,  Rhythm

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 5 (Rhythms and language)

Hello Dear Reader

I am writing this blog entry at about 10pm after having just got back to the hotel from a lovely dinner with a few of the conference participants. It is at little unofficial get-togethers like this that you often find out the most interesting insights into who is working on what and what people think about the latest research being presented at the conference.

Everyone seems to be pleasantly surprised by the amount of work on rhythm perception being presented at this conference. I agree. 5 years ago it seems the majority of work was focused much more on pitch than rhythm and now that situation has completely reversed.

Paralysis agitans-1892
Paralysis agitans-1892

One reason for this flip is the range of new grants awarded to study patient populations, and it seems people are having more luck with proposing rhythm interventions.

Parkinson’s is definitely the area that is attracting the most funding interest, going on the work presented and discussed at this conference alone. It is very exciting too see this applied work especially when it is carried out in multi-disciplinary groups that contain music psychology researchers as well as clinicians.

The first session of Day 3 was a slight exception, but only in part. The session, chaired by Devin McAuley, still featured rhythm-based studies but was aimed at the development of related interventions for language rather than movement.

King George VI (UK) had a severe stammer
King George VI (UK) had a severe stammer

Devin gave the first talk of the session which was on the interesting topic of stuttering, a speech difficulty which apparently affects around 3 million in the US alone. Relapse from treatment is common and there is currently no cure.

One interesting fact about stuttering is that sufferers can often sing without difficulty of talk to a metronome. Devin hypothesised that these people may have a core rhythmic difficulty in the brain that might be reduced by a rhythm based intervention.

Brain imaging data support his idea; stuttering children show reduced connectivity in a network linked to rhythm perception accuracy.

Devin also presented some preliminary data from studies with song birds, whose brains react differently in their song producing areas when they are exposed to arrhythmic stimuli. Sadly this involves post mortem dissection (its tricky to get a song bird in a scanner…) but the results were quite clear and applicable to his argument as songbirds have a basically similar neural vocal production system to humans.

Hopes are high that rhythm-based interventions might provide the stable long-term treatment for stuttering that has long been lacking.

Mikhail Baryshnikov - now that's a talent
Mikhail Baryshnikov – now that’s a talent

The next talk was by Ioulia Kovelman, a most entertaining speaker who gave a presentation on the rhythm of language in the brain. Ioulia is Russian and briefly spoke a little Russian to illustrate the difficulty of parsing a very unfamiliar language. She reminded me how much I like the sound of Russian…

Ioulia’s work has looked into the underlying neural markers of successful speech parsing, which as a skill has its basis in simpler auditory tasks such as amplitude perception – spotting a softer noise from a more intense sound.

The type of brain activity (area left STG) seen in response to this kind of amplitude detection task correlated with rhythmic sensitivity and phonological processing (language ability related to reading). The conclusion was that this brain area, which preferentially processes relatively slow changes in sound, potentially relates to language acquisition and reading success.

The third talk was by Jennifer Thompson, apparently a new colleague of mine as she is based somewhere within the University of Sheffield. I must find out where…

Lao_schoolgirls_reading_booksJennifer has been trialling rhythmic interventions and more phoneme based training to test whether the kind of music training that we all hope will help with reading and language learning actually compares to a more related form of reading training. This seems like good work to me; important if we are to argue that music is to be take seriously in schools because of its potential benefits to language.

Heroically, Jennifer was quite open about the fact that she was a little disappointed in the results. The music training (rhythm-based) did afford some benefits to language skills, certainly compared to controls, but there were more benefits from language training.

What she did not show any data on, which I would like to see, is how much the kids liked the computer games that were part of both training programs. I think that would be a crucial factor on how long they would continue to engage with them in real life and, therefore, the possible long-term results.

Finally ,we heard from Reyna Gordon who focused more on grammar learning in children. She talked us through the evidence for a link between rhythmic ability and grammar skills, the more fancy term for which is morpho-syntactic production.

It appears that kids who are better with rhythm also reliably produce more grammatically accurate responses. This seems quite striking to me as it is quite a way between basic rhythm skills and grammar production, but Reyna had been careful to partial out the usual possible confounds like memory and IQ performance. I remain to be convinced that there are no other possible mediating factors between these two abilities (rhythm and grammar) but the initial data certainly look interesting.

Morning_baguettesAfter this session we all spilled out into the hall for a drink and the by now ubiquitous pastries.

At this point I am not sure quite how much more white flour and butter my system can take but…while in France….

They don’t make bread like this anywhere else!

I migrated outside the conference hall to the gorgeous mid-morning sunshine and fell into conversation with my old lab colleagues from Goldsmiths. Between catching up with them I managed to miss the next symposium. Apologies Dear Reader, by this point I had started to flag a little. But I managed to notice my error in time to make the next session on the interesting topic of Dance and the Brain…

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