Biological impact of preschool music classes on processing speech in noise

Strait, D.L., Parbery-Clark, A., O’Connell, S. & Kraus, N. (2013). Biological impact of preschool music classes on processing speech in noise. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 6. 51-60. 

Abstract:

This study compared auditory brainstem responses (ABR) to speech in noise in 32 preschool children, half of whom were engaged in musical training. Musical training was broadly defined as instrumental music lessons and/or participation in classes that incorporated song and dance. A year later 13 children returned for another round of tests making this the first longitudinal assessment of ABR with music training. Findings revealed enhancements in musically trained children for the neural processing of speech in noise. Longitudinal outcomes demonstrate that children with one year of music training have increased neural resilience to background noise as compared to children with no music training. 

Key Findings:

The data revealed that children with musical training were able to more quickly neurally process speech in background noise than children with no musical training. The longitudinal data demonstrated that this benefit increases with an additional year of continued music training.

Significance of the Findings:

Children require a higher signal-to-noise ratio than adults which makes it more challenging for them to hear speech amongst background noise. Because most early childhood learning environments tend to be noisy, children who can more easily neurally process speech in a noisy environment may have developmental advantages for learning. Other studies suggest that faster neural responses to speech in the first four years of a child’s life are predictive of language performance later in childhood. Therefore if musical training can assist children with these responses it may benefit later language development. The researchers also assert that this study is the first evidence of a biological impact of preschool musical training.

Methodology:

Thirty-two children between the ages of 3 – 5 years old participated in the study. No child had cognitive or hearing impairments. Roughly half the sample were characterized as musicians while the other half were non-musicians as determined by their participation in music training. The children listened for the stimulus (a speech syllable) against a background of babble - multiple layers of sentences being spoken by different people. The children received the sound stimulus through headphones. While the children listened their brainstem response was recorded and peaks in response identified. The response characteristics between the two groups were then compared using ANOVA, a statistical method used to test the difference between two or more factors.

Limitations of the Research:

This study is not able to distinguish between the impact of musical training from the role of innate predispositions towards faster neural response in some children. Likewise, while a faster response time was noted in children with musical training it is unclear how this may provide an advantage in everyday interactions with language.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Further research could assess how the benefits presented for musical children in this study can impact memory, attention and language abilities. Additionally, group comparisons in this study reveal that pre-schoolers with music training do not demonstrate all the advantages observed in older children and adult musicians. Further study could examine if these enhancement would emerge in pre-school children with more extensive musical training.