Using music to understand how children develop speech skills

Cheerful girl with headphones

Music is everywhere in modern life, even during quarantine times of Covid-19. Yet individuals vary a lot in their music abilities. In my lab we are particularly focused on studying people’s rhythm skills. Some folks pick up rhythms easily – they can tap in time to the beat, dance, and learn new songs almost effortlessly. Other people may struggle more with rhythm – they may not really hear the beat in music. Across the population, it turns out that there is a huge range of rhythm abilities! Have you ever wondered why this could be?

Two big questions addressed in our ongoing research are, 1) why do people differ so much in their musicality? and, 2) how could what we learn about these differences in rhythm help individuals with developmental disabilities? The key may be in how rhythm relates to speech and language development.

This research topic started a decade ago when I was a postdoctoral research fellow right here in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, working with Alexandra Key, Ph.D., and Paul Yoder, Ph.D. I had learned about prior work showing that children’s musical skills were related to their reading abilities. This was observed in children with typical development (where a child who had better rhythm was likely to have better reading skills) and in children with reading difficulties (where children with dyslexia were more likely to have trouble with rhythm). We were awarded a VKC Hobbs Discovery Grant in 2012 to examine whether rhythm and spoken language would also be related.

The answer was yes! Our first study showed that children who had better rhythm were likely to have better spoken language skills.* We have also more recently found that brain activity in the beta and gamma frequencies (measured with EEG while children listen to rhythms) are predictive of language skills. That groundwork led us to many new, scaled-up studies to look at these ideas on the population level. We are particularly curious about the significance of individual and familial markers of rhythm and a potential association with speech and language disorders. Could parents’ rhythm predict their child’s likelihood of developing a speech-language disorder (such as dyslexia, stuttering, or developmental language disorder)? And can the accuracy in how infants’ brains perceive rhythm before their first birthday tell us anything about the trajectory of that child’s speech-language development into the preschool years?

Reyna Gordon smiling

Reyna L. Gordon, Ph.D.

These are big and complicated topics, so our current research really embodies the concept of interdisciplinarity! We are utilizing methods from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, childhood language development, communication disorders, and computational genetics to find the best combination of rhythm “biomarkers” that can tell us about children’s risk for developing speech and language disorders. It’s important to note that we see rhythm as a risk factor rather than an absolute determinant. And of course there are some individuals who would score low on a rhythm experiment but have typical speech-language development (and vice-versa: some individuals that have speech-language disorders have a really good sense of rhythm!). Still, risk factors are important because they can help parents, teachers, and health care providers decide which children might need extra screening early on. Better screening could lead to more children getting referred to speech-language pathologists and better access to early intervention! We’ve just published a new review paper that walks through the predictions of our new Atypical Rhythm Risk Hypothesis (available for open access at

Our newest efforts involve using advanced analysis tools in collaboration with the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute to examine the biological basis of people’s rhythm ability and looking at underlying biology potentially shared with speech and language development. We are pleased to share a new research opportunity for adults to participate in this internet-based study from the comfort of their home. At the end of the study, participants can even learn their rhythm scores!

Enrollment for our other ongoing work, focused on rhythm in infants and their parents, is on the horizon. Feel free to contact our research team through VKC Study Finder if you would like to be contacted once COVID-19 social distancing guidelines have ended.

Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Otolaryngology and Psychology, director of the Music Cognition Lab, and a VKC investigator.



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