The Link Between Rhythm and Speech


Music and language have many things in common. One obvious commonality is that both have rhythm. Just take a look at this video of a skilled drummer processing the rhythm of speech and transferring it into an intriguing solo!

Previously, scientists have shown that the processing of music and language relies on partly overlapping neural resources. Therefore, the same neural mechanisms that are active when an individual processes the rhythm of music, or the beat, are active when we process the rhythm of speech. In testimony of this, researchers Elizabeth Wielanda, Devin McAuley, Laura Dilleya, and Soo-Eun Chang recently discovered that children who stutter have difficulties in perceiving the beat in music.

Research suggests that a deficit in rhythm processing may underlie stuttering.

Stuttering can be described as difficulties in producing the rhythmic flow of speech. According to the study, previous research has shown that sometimes stuttering decreases when the person times his or her speech to a metronome or sings instead of speaking, and that stuttering is typically accompanied by rhythm production difficulties. However, little research has been conducted on whether speech production difficulties are related to rhythm perception difficulties. In this study, rhythm perception skills of 9-year-old children who stutter, and children without any language difficulties were investigated. The children were asked to listen to pairs of rhythms, varying in complexity, and indicate whether the rhythms were the same of different. According to the results, children who stutter were not as good at discriminating between complex and simple rhythms as the children in the control group. The researchers suggest that a deficit in rhythm processing may underlie stuttering.

Could training in rhythm perception then be used to support development of speech production? Evidence is mounting on positive effects of therapies using music in the rehabilitation of speech and even reading difficulties. Music could be an enjoyable and non-stigmatizing way to treat and even prevent language-related difficulties. But more on this in a future post summarizing research on the intriguing connection between music and language… Meanwhile, if you are interested in your own beat perception and production abilities, here’s a fun test to try out.

written by ketki karanam



Gordon, R. L., Jacobs, M. S., Schuele, C. M., & McAuley, J. D. (2015). Perspectives on the rhythm-grammar link and its implications for typical and atypical language development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337(1), 16–25. doi:10.1111/nyas.12683

Patel, A. D. (2014). Can nonlinguistic musical training change the way the brain processes speech? The expanded OPERA hypothesis. Hearing Research, 308, 98–108. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2013.08.011

Wieland, E. A., McAuley, J. D., Dilley, L. C., & Chang, S.-E. (2015). Evidence for a rhythm perception deficit in children who stutter. Brain and Language, 144, 26–34. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2015.03.008