In his book “Vom Neandertal in die Philharmonie – Warum der Mensch ohne Musik nicht leben” [From the Neanderthal to the Philharmonic Orchestra – Why We Cannot Live Without Music], the German musicologist and physician Eckart Altenmüller explains the history of music. With elemental sounds such as grunting, screeching or groaning, people were able to express emotions before language ever developed. Once they had made language their tool, they added speech melody, another means of expressing feelings. Over time, this melody became detached from language. This also accounts for the close connection between language and music. Speech melody can completely change the meaning of a sentence, explain to the listener whether what is being said is a statement or question and is a great means of expressing emotions. According to the proverb “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”, the same literal sentence can be perceived in a friendly or aggressive way.

For people with hearing impairments, prosody, i.e. that part of language that deals with emphasis, rhythm and intonation (also known as speech melody), is sometimes a challenge. This is because they don’t often hear these prosodic elements very clearly – this is why they may speak in a monotonous voice. However, music can help make some improvements in this area.

A Canadian study [1] of children with cochlear implants investigated the effects of music education on music perception and emotional speech prosody. One group of 6-15 year-old children received individual piano instruction for six months, while the second group received individual art instruction.

Before, during and after the study it was tested how well the children could recognise scales, pitches, pauses, rhythm and melodies. The prosody tasks were to recognise the emotions in a sentence. During the six-month study, it became apparent that those who took individual piano lessons had a superior ability to remember rhythm and melodies. Above all, however, they were able to better recognise the emotional intentions in a sentence, meaning that they could perceive the sentence melody more precisely. The test results for children from the art group were significantly worse. The study authors concluded that music training not only promotes the perception of music, but also increases the ability to understand feelings conveyed by language. For this reason, it is an ideal complement to rehabilitation after cochlear implantation.

These results shouldn’t come as a surprise. For many years, researchers have been studying the relationship between music training and language development and have repeatedly come to the same conclusion. Actively playing music promotes the linguistic abilities of children – this applies to children with normal hearing as well as to children with hearing impairments.

[1] Benefits of Music Training for Perception of Emotional Speech Prosody in Deaf Children With Cochlear Implants. Good A et al. Ear Hear. 2017 Jul/Aug;38(4):455-464.