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Musical training may give your brain waves more rhythm

28th October 2015

Not a fan of slow jams? Maybe you haven’t had enough training.

When we hear speech, electrical waves in our brain synchronise to the rhythm of the syllables, helping us to understand what’s being said. This happens when we listen to music too, and now we know some brains are better at syncing to the beat than others.

Keith Doelling at New York University and his team recorded the brain waves of musicians and non-musicians while listening to music, and found that both groups synchronised two types of low-frequency brain waves, known as delta and theta, to the rhythm of the music.

Synchronising our brain waves to music helps us decode it, says Doelling. The electrical waves collect the information from continuous music and break it into smaller chunks that we can process.

But for particularly slow music, the non-musicians were less able to synchronise, with some volunteers saying they couldn’t keep track of these slower rhythms.

Practice makes perfect

Rather than natural talent, Doelling thinks musicians are more comfortable with slower tempos because of their musical training. As part of his own musical education, he remembers being taught to break down tempo into smaller subdivisions. He suggests that grouping shorter beats together in this way is what helps musicians to process slow music better.

One theory is that musicians have heard and played much more music, allowing them to acquire “meta-knowledge”, such as a better understanding of how composers structure pieces. This could help them detect a broader range of tempos, says Usha Goswami of the University of Cambridge.

A similar process helps with decoding speech, but it can malfunction in conditions like dyslexia. Because the brain circuits for speech and music overlap, Doelling’s finding suggests that music training may be a way to help dyslexic children, says Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Goswami agrees: her team has already shown that rhythm-based musical training seems to help children who have difficulty reading.

Read more on the New Scientist website