There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to really help children, particularly those that may find other aspects of reading somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart is a massively experiential process. The feeling of the sounds in the movement of the face, the jaw and the tongue are dance-like sequences and enjoyed for their bold sensations, which in terms of conveying their mood and colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, this is just like practising a musical instrument; indeed practising poetry through the congruence of movement, sounds and patterns is a deep and enriched form of language learning that we all can enjoy, having mastered this first as infants acquiring our mother-tongue (Nazzi et al., 1998) .
If you read aloud or recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s easy to invoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are utterly meaningless. Behind the evocative tones of the nonsense words, there’s a robust rhythmical structure and fascinatingly, researchers have found that we respond to the poem as if to a projected illusion of grammatical structure (Bonhage et al., 2015). The importance of rhythmical patterns is that they cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to fully anticipate and enjoy all the more, the likely flow of the sounds and the colourful moods of the poem.
The usefulness of rhyme, so popular in children’s literature, is that it offers a fun and playfully supportive, highly accessible and very basic form of phonological awareness. Hearing the rhyming feature in words is a massive anchor for children who may arrive at school struggling to discern word boundaries in a stream of speech. This example of rhyme is from, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr Seuss (1960):
This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! what a lot of fish there are.
Rhyming words are also invaluable for those children who come to school with a clearer grasp of language. Children are stimulated by rhymes, because rather than simply following the language of the poem, they are more deliberately focussing their attention in order to predict the placing of the rhyming word at the end of the line or phrase. For these reasons it is not surprising that highly rhythmically aware children are more likely to become good readers (Tierney and Kraus, 2013) – they arrive at school able to anticipate and enjoy the structure of rhythmic patterns in language. Similarly, children who may struggle with reading thrive when practising poetry because the explicit rhythmical structure and shorter phrase lengths support their attention, helping them to perceive the meaningful elements of language more easily.
In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we takes this principle further still, by providing rhythm-based reading tasks that give the children a chance to build their awareness of rhythmic patterns very rapidly. The sessions are a highly condensed extraction from traditional musical training. Building a strong response to rhythmical patterns, children develop and sustain their attention across increasingly complex musical phrases. Their awareness of rhythm transfers into their reading development after only a few ten-minute sessions.
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Bonhage, Corinna E., et al. (2015) “Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension.” Cortex 68, 33-45
Dr Seuss (1960) One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Random House
Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 756-766
Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) Music training for the development of reading skills. Prog Brain Res 207:209 –241
This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading sessions. By this stage everyone in the group can sight-read both simple and comparatively complex music notation with ease and confidence. To do this, our eyes are glued onto the board, our voices are synchronised and we’ve gelled through teamwork. The important part is this: the group experiences music at a deeper, more interpersonal level when these skills become reliable and relaxed, even when facing more challenging tasks. Here’s a short description of how this felt in the final session of the programme and a quick drill down into the concept.
After a couple of minutes, everyone’s behaviour changed at the same time. There was a sharp increase in the level of congruence in the group. Standing calmly as the task ended, they waited and gladly repeated the experience, expanding even more fully into the sounds they were creating. This level of working was maintained consistently for a further eight minutes, after which the group left the room feeling energised and calm, returning cheerfully to class.
These words have been carefully chosen to describe as accurately as possible how working in this way with the rhythm-based elements of music makes a difference to emotional wellbeing. Congruence in this sense refers to the sheer strength and coherence of our perception of rhythmic patterns, particularly when working as a group. Gains in reading behaviour can be measured, but the more profound benefits to wellbeing such as the increase in confidence and happiness that many children describe, are not measurable.
This rather reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’. Optimal experiences are life-affirming, intrinsically rewarding and in terms of pedagogy, they are highly desirable because they boost students’ confidence and motivation. They can be very helpful in realigning attitudes towards reward, so that students become motivated by the sheer joy of taking part rather than wanting to know what they will ‘get’ in return for taking part.
The spontaneous element of what I have described is not trivial, but extremely important, as it describes how the deeper and more satisfying levels of engagement can be achieved through working in this way. Perhaps it is our irrepressible ability to generate congruence from patterns in music and language that fuels our joy of reading and of music making.
Find out more here
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) ‘Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness’ Rider, Random House, ISBN 9780712657594
Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.
In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.
These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.
Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).
More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).
Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).
Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with our work in Rhythm for Reading.
1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556
2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605
3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362
4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140
5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.
6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.
How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.
Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).
It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure. Isn’t the strength, power and universality of these processes absolutely remarkable?
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.
Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457