Scientists unravel mysteries around rhythm and language

  • Scientists tested participants’ ability to tap along to a beat and to recall various beats after the song was switched off.
  • They turned out to be two separate skills, which may depend on different neurological pathways in the brain.
  • The results may help scientists to uncover how music and language skills are related.

Either wondered why your Dad always claps out of time to his favourite songs? And yet he can recall and sing the tune until the cows come home? Science may have the answer.

It turns out that these are in fact two distinct sets of skills, and your ability to do one is no indication that you can also do the other. The new observations could have implications for how we process and learn languages.

The research is published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE

“I’m just a really musical person”

Is rhythmic ability a single set of skills, or are there many different types of musical skills that fall under this umbrella term? If you are good at one, does this mean you are good at all of them?

Scientists at Northwestern University, USA, have defined two separate types of rhythmic skills–tapping along to a beat and the ability to remember rhythms–that they say may require different neurological processing.

They asked a group of 67 young adults (average age of 18) to listen to various rhythmic sequences, and assessed their ability to tap along with the beats and to recall the rhythmic patterns once the music had been switched off.

They analysed the participants’ ability to carry out each exercise and whether or not their level of success in each exercise was statistically related.

They saw that participants that could keep pace with the rhythm were not necessarily able to recall rhythms once the music was switched off.

Different brain processes

They discovered that recalling a short rhythm sequence requires us to retain and process more information over a longer period than simply clapping along to a song in real time.

“A crucial difference between beat tapping and rhythm memory [..] is that the rhythm memory [..] requires integration of acoustic information across a greater length of time than does beat tapping,” they write in the scientific article.

Even if the sequences are very short, this may still be enough to require different neurological pathways in the brain to successfully carry out these two separate skills.

“If beat tapping and rhythm memory [..] are separable skills they may also rely on dissociable neural foundations,” they write in the scientific article.

According to the scientists behind the research, one crucial difference seems to be that rhythm memory relies upon additional areas of the brain to simply tapping along to a beat in real time.

Helping scientists to understand language learning

Scientists have known for sometime that speech and language may be related to rhythmic ability, but they could not pin down the exact nature of this relationship.

This new research may shed some light on the subject and help linguists to distinguish how various rhythmic skills may be more or less related with linguistic skills.

“Learning how these rhythm skills relate to one another could lead to insights regarding the relationship between rhythm and language,” they write.

According to them the two skill sets identified here could be associated with specific language skills, and could even lead to targeted interventions for children whose language problems stem from a lack of either of these two types of rhythmic skills. [wp-svg-icons icon=”mug” wrap=”div”]


Photo Credit: Flickr ariel martini


Time for a bit more? Read on…

Looking for more reading on this topic? First off, why not try reading the original open-access scientific article.

If that is a step too far, then try the original press release form EurekAlert.

Check out the scientists Adam Tierney’s and Nina Kraus’s research profiles to read about their research interests.


Tierney, A., & Kraus, N. (2015). Evidence for Multiple Rhythmic Skills PLOS ONE, 10 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136645


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