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Musicians' Brains Tuned to Emotions in Sound

Finding suggests children with language disorders may benefit from tonal training

FRIDAY, March 13 (HealthDay News) -- Musical training enhances the ability to recognize emotion in speech and other sounds, a finding that suggests that musical training might benefit people with language problems and impaired emotional perception.

"Quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom," Dana Strait, a music cognition researcher at Northwestern University, said in a university news release.

Strait and her colleagues studied 30 musicians and non-musicians, ages 19 to 35, and found that the more years of musical experience people had and the earlier they began their music studies, the better the ability of the nervous system to process emotion in sound.

During the study, participants heard a 250-millisecond fragment of a distressed baby's cry. Electrodes placed on the volunteers' scalps measured their sensitivity to the sound. The results showed that musicians' brainstems zeroed in on the complex part of the sound that carried more emotional elements but did not pay as much attention to the simpler -- less emotion-conveying -- part of the sound. This did not occur in non-musicians, the researchers found.

"That [musicians'] brains respond more quickly and accurately than the brains of non-musicians is something we'd expect to translate into the perception of emotion in other settings," Strait said.

The sound elements processed more efficiently by musicians are the same ones that children with language disorders have trouble encoding, the researchers noted.

"It would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience," said study co-author and neuroscientist Nina Kraus.

Strait, who formerly worked as a therapist with autistic children, noted that impaired emotional perception is a major characteristic of autism and Asperger's syndrome. She suggested that musical training might help promote emotion processing in people with these conditions.

The study was published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

More information

The American Music Therapy Association has more about music therapy.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, March 3, 2009

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