We Don't Learn Our ABC's by Saying Them... We Sing!

 Music is universal.  Its origins are known in every culture, as there has yet to be discovered a culture that does not integrate music into their society (Worth, 1997).  Music containing lyrics is a powerful form of expression that dates back to ancient Sanskrit Dramas of India and the Greek Dramas of Classical Antiquity. Music offers us as a species an entire new vocabulary for self-expression. As Plato declared, “Music is moral law.  It gives the soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything” (Paquette & Rieg, 2008).  

    In the field of psychology, music is known to evoke feelings, emotions, memories, and thoughts.  Millions of studies have been conducted on the power of music, however in recent years the topic of music has emerged in experiments regarding language acquisition. “Comparing language and music is a tradition inherited from Aristotle and Darwin” (Williamson, 2009). However, psychologists are just presently beginning to understand why music affects the way we learn, how music is processed in the brain, and the similarities and differences between these two universal forms of communication (Williamson, 2009). Such similarities between music and language are that they both involve the perception of sound, highly structured systems with syntax, discrete and measurable elements, belong to a hierarchically organization of sequences, acquire implicit knowledge and are interpreted through the lens of perception (Jentschke, Koelsch, Sallat, and Friederici, 2008).


Overlap in Neural Structural Processing

    A recent experiment, conducted by Fedorenko, Patel, Casasanto, Winawer, Gibson, found evidence to support the idea that language and music share an overlap in online processing and some aspects of structural integration; in addition, to successfully being the first to demonstrate an “interaction between linguistic and musical structural complexity for well-formed (grammatical) sentences” (2009).  This experiment gives credibility to Patel’s Shared Syntactic Integration Resource Hypothesis, which states that although the linguistic and musical knowledge systems may be independent; the system for online structural integration may be shared between music and language (Fedorenko, Patel, Casasanto, Winawer, & Gibson, 2009).

    Neuropsychological experiments have utilized magneto-encephalography, event-related potentials and functional magnetic resonance imaging to support the idea that structural manipulations in music activate the Broca Area’s surrounding cortical regions (Stromswold, Caplan, Alpert & Rauch, 1996), which have a proven history in relation to the structural processing of speech and language (Patel, Gibson, Ratner, Besson & Holocomb, 1998; Besson & Faita, 1995; Janata, 1995; Fedorenko, Patel, Casasanto, Winawer, & Gibson, 2009).  In addition, experiments have been conducted to further develop the localization of music and speech to the right-hemisphere homologue (Koelsch, 2000; Koelsch, 2002; Levitin & Menon, 2003).  


Music Therapy and Joint Collaboration Treatments

    Musical therapy has been included in multiple treatment modules and has found to be beneficial in collaboration with speech-language pathologist’s treatment modules for language acquisition (Hobson, 2006).  To further this point, in 2000 Pellitteri claimed that children in a musical environment felt at ease, allowing natural language to emerge (McCarthy, Geist, Zojwala & Schock, 2008). Although there is a lack of knowledge regarding the profession surrounding music therapy and their work with speech pathologist; McCarthy, Geist, Zojwala and Schock conducted an internet-based survey with 1675 Board Certified Music Therapists and their work with speech-language pathologists to better explore music’s affect on language, academics, gross/fine motor and behavioral interventions (2008).  

    The survey projected that 3 out of 4 musical therapists will work with speech-language pathologists in joint collaboration, and that the list of benefits included client’s progress in the areas of expressive communication (rating 5.86 out of 7), receptive communication (rating 5.19 out of 7), fine/gross motor (rating 4.62 out of 7), socialization (rating 5.15 out of 7), emotional/behavioral (rating 4.76 out of 7), and academic (rating 4.24 out of 7) (McCarthy, Geist, Zojwala & Schock, 2008).

    I found these results interesting because my work as a behavior analyst not only includes music, but centers around the writing of treatment plans for the exact same skill areas to which this study found a reported benefit.  In addition, I too hold joint collaborative session with a music therapist and have found it to be beneficial to my clients. One substantial difference between the treatments modules is that a behavior analysts breaks down the skill subgroups into components, operationally defined responses and systematically reinforces skills while collecting daily data on every attempt made by the child. Pivotal Response Training, within the science of applied behavior analysis, relies can involve music as a component for the treatment of language delay, specifically for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. 


Promoting Language in Children with Communication Impairments

    Other studies have focused on utilizing music therapy in a co-treatment modules for children with severe language delay; such as Bruchia’s 1982 research experiment in which he treated a 14 year old male with mental retardation for language impairment of echolia in a successful single-subject research design which decreased 95% of the total echolia utterances to the level of 10% (Geist, McCarthy, Rodgers-Smith and Jessica Porter, 2008).

    Another preliminary successful single-subject experiment was completed using a classroom-based collaborative speech-language pathology/music therapy module in which a 4-year-old child diagnosed with bronchopulmonary dysphasia increased skills in language comprehension, language expression and gesturing, in addition to social interaction, increased levels of engagement, play skills and use of his voice output device (Geist, McCarthy, Rodgers-Smith and Jessica Porter, 2008).



    A precise and detailed relationship between music and language acquisition is yet to be declared in the empirical scientific realm.  However, very interesting studies are being conducted in terms of how music could possible influence or enhance language acquisition.  This research question is socially valid, as it would truly enhance the current treatment modules for teaching language and treating language delay. Regarding perception, language is vital to the way that we communicate and understand the world.  As language is a contrived construct, it needs to be taught.  As perception is an active process of the individual, one can truly come to appreciate the role of speech and language in how it shapes our perception.  Without the understanding of language and our ability to communicate with others, we would be isolated in our perception.  Without music, life would just be dull.  Music is more powerful than we currently understand it to be.  As

Aristotle wrote, "Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young."




Aristotle. (1447ad.). Great-Quotes.com. Retrieved December 14, 2011,     from Great-Quotes.com Web site


Fedorenko, E., Patel, A., Casasanto, D., Winawer, J., & Gibson, E. (2009). Structural integration in language and music: Evidence     for a shared system. Memory & Cognition. 37(1), 1-9.     


Geist, K., McCarthy, J., Rodgers-Smith, A., & Porter, J. (2008). Integrating music therapy services and speech-language therapy services for children with severe communication impairments: A co-treatment model. Journal of Instructional Psychology. 35(4), 311-316. 


Jentschke, S., Koelsch, S., Sallat, S., & Friederici, A. D. (2008).     Children with specific language impairment also show impairment of music-syntactic processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20(11), 1940-1951. 


Lim, H. A. (2009). Use of music to improve speech production in     children with autism spectrum disorders. Theoretical orientation. Music Therapy Perspectives. 27(2), 103-114. Retrieved from EBSCO host.


Patel, A. D. (2008). Music, language, and the brain. New York, NY US:     Oxford University Press. Retrieved from EBSCO host.


Schön, D., Boyer, M., Moreno, S., Besson, M., Peretz, I., & Kolinsky,     R. (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition. Cognition. 106(2), 975-983. 


Weiss, M. (2009). Increasing receptive, expressive, and overall language skills in language-delayed preschool students.     Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 70, Retrieved from EBSCO host


Williamson, V.  (2009). Special issue: The power of music. The Psychologist. 22(12), 1022-1025. 


Worth, S. (1997). Wittgenstein's Musical Understanding" British Journal of Aesthetics. (37), 158-167.  


Ms. Kristine D. Dickson, BCBA

Owner/Clinical Director

Nurture & Nature Applied Behavior Analysis and Consultation

5318 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Suite 101, 

Valley Village, CA 91607 

(818) 613-1206