That’s right: Researchers at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory have recently completed a study which found that overall audiovisual sensitivity (necessary for good verbal skills) is improved if one has had musical training. An article about this project is here at Northwestern’s Newscenter.
Specifically regarding practicing, the article says:
“Study participants, who had varying amounts of musical training or none at all, wore scalp electrodes that measured their multi-sensory brain responses to audio and video of a cellist playing and a person speaking.
The data showed that the number of years that a person practiced music strongly correlated with enhanced basic sound encoding mechanisms that also are relevant for speech. Beyond revealing super-accurate pitch coding vital to recognizing a speaker's identity and emotional intent, the study showed enhanced transcription of timbre and timing cues common to speech and music.” (italic emphasis added by me)
Notice that the study involved people who had practiced for years. Not months, but years. This means that an extended time period of musical training (learning an instrument or learning to sing) reaped the most neurological benefits for individuals.
Here’s how the researchers think it works: Music involves an all-encompassing attention to multi-sensory stimuli (you must watch, listen, feel, move, etc. when playing music). The processing of this multi-sensory data through musical training actually specializes or finely tunes the neural response to audiovisual input. Since multi-sensory processing is also necessary for speech recognition skills and literacy, the cognitive benefits from musical training affects the brain’s ability in those areas as well. In fact, the research suggests that music training for children could provide a better (and neurologically deeper) benefit to communication skills than learning phonics (don’t take it from me, read the article). That seems almost shocking to me!
(See also my post about music and speech sensitivity which discussed another research project conducted at Northwestern University.)
I think that it is ironic and somewhat sad that so much evidence for the wide-reaching cognitive (and academic) benefits of music is coming out from US research institutions at a time when overall arts education (which includes serious music training) is being continually cut back if not eliminated from school curriculums. Who knows how long it will take for the pendulum to swing the other way?