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In a Range of New Science, Researchers Find the Power of Music to Build the Brain

SAN DIEGO--The recording is plain and brief: A man whose speech has been damaged by a stroke is asked by a researcher to say “Happy Birthday,” but he can do no more than repeat the letters N and O. Then, he is asked to sing “Happy Birthday,” and with a little nudge, he sings the song straight through, quite clearly.

It is a crucial insight, illustrating the complex relationship between language and music in the human mind. They interact, they overlap, and yet they appear to operate in different centers of the brain. And where language is lost, music may help bring it back, researchers said at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

"Music and language are two very special abilities we have,” Aniruddh D. Patel, the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute here, said in a AAAS podcast. “Understanding how they work in the brain would have lots of implications for lots of practical things like treating language disorders or aiding language learning.”

Patel was one of a trio of researcher featured at a 20 February symposium, "Music-Language Interactions in the Brain: From the Brainstem to Broca’s Area." In a news briefing and a 90-minute session that generated international news coverage, the researchers detailed how music can help a child's brain development, sharpen our perception, and help in rehabilitation for people who has lost the ability to speak.

For example, Patel says in the AAAS podcast, the evidence suggests that people with musical training have improved language-learning ability. The brains of people exposed to even casual musical training have more acute hearing, said Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Musicians "have subconsciously trained their brains to better recognize selective sound patterns, even as background noise goes up," writes Victoria Jaggard in a story on National Geographic's Web site.

Those attributes should elevate the importance of music training in schools, Kraus said. "Cash-strapped school districts are making a mistake when they cut music from the curriculum," she warned in a story written by Kate Youde for the U.K.-based Independent.

Even when the brain is much older, music can tap its powers.

Karin Zeitvogel's story for Agence France-Presse (AFP), focused on the work of symposium speaker Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. Schlaug is using music therapy to help stroke victims and others to regain some language; he showed a video of the stroke victim who couldn't say "Happy Birthday," but could sing it. [BBC has a brief related audio.]

"Images of the brains of patients with stroke lesions on the left side of the brain--which is typically used more for speech--show 'functional and structural changes' on the right side of the brain after they have undergone this form of therapy through song, called Music Intonation Therapy (MIT)," Zeitvogel wrote.

The therapy is highly intensive and can last for years. "But the benefits...are usually permanent," the story said, "and two-thirds of patients who have undergone MIT with Schlaug added more words to their spoken vocabulary after their therapy had ended than the 100 words they were 'taught' to say in therapy."

Patel challenged the conventional idea that that music and language are processed independently, saying that evidence suggests at least a degree of overlap. But to fully understand the relationship between language and music--and to explore it's full power--he said that science in the future will have to employ a range of assessment techniques drawn from psychology and medical studies.