A new study has shed light on the benefits of musical training for language development in children. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that in four to five-year-old children, piano lessons facilitated certain aspects of language development as much as – and in some areas more than – reading instruction.

While the benefits of musical training to speech processing have already been established (and there are many studies that show wide ranging effects and benefits music can have on the brain, and on children’s development)  this study sought to investigate the underlying brain mechanisms that lead to benefits in language development. The study saw 74 Mandarin speaking children, aged four to five, divided into three groups. One group received piano training over six months, one group received reading training, while the third ‘no contact’ group was a control.

All three groups improved equally on general cognitive measures, including IQ tests, working memory and attention, according to the study’s authors, but the group receiving piano training demonstrated improved “behavioural auditory word discrimination in general, as well as word discrimination based on vowels compared with the controls.”

The reading group saw similar benefits to the group taking piano lessons. “However, the piano group demonstrated unique advantages over the reading and control groups in consonant-based word discrimination and in enhanced positive mismatch responses (pMMRs) to lexical tone and musical pitch changes,” the authors wrote. “The improved word discrimination based on consonants correlated with the enhancements in musical pitch pMMRs among the children in the piano group.”

According to the researchers, the results suggest that strengthened common sound processing domains between musical training and language are an important mechanism underpinning the benefits of musical training on language processing.

“Although we failed to find far-transfer effects of musical training to general cognition, the near-transfer effects to speech perception establish the potential for musical training to help children improve their language skills. Piano training was not inferior to reading training on direct tests of language function, and it even seemed superior to reading training in enhancing consonant discrimination.”