The Arts and Speech/Language Development: Music

By Peter Kao, M.S., CCC-SLP

This is part 1 of a three-part series discussing speech and language development and the arts.

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I was a youngster, my parents told me, “Playing piano makes you smarter”. At the time, I thought it was a just ploy to get me to practice more. Yet for decades, researchers have studied links between literacy and music. More recently, research has linked training in music to speech and language development. While not necessarily “smarter”, the research shows that students with music training perform better on speech and language tasks than non-musicians.

The Research

Training in music has been shown to correlate with reading scores on standardized tests in school-age children (Strait, Hornickel, & Krauss, 2011). Students from low socio-economic backgrounds with music training retained reading skills over the course of a year better than those without (Slater et al., 2014).

Music training has also been shown to affect encoding speech sounds, auditory working memory, and attention. In fact, children with music training showed neurological differences in automatic brainstem responses to speech sounds and auditory working memory tasks than other children  (Strait, Hornickel, & Krauss, 2011).  A systematic review of research correlating phonological skills in children with music training showed that students who received 40 hours of music training performed better on rhyming tasks than those who had no music training (Gordon, Fehd, & McCandliss, 2015). Current research suggests that a student’s ability to process and produce rhythms has a strong connection to literacy (Harrison, Wood, Holliman, & Vousden, 2017) and syntax (Gordon, et al., 2015).

The Reality

According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2011-2012, there were approximately 82,000 music educations in elementary schools across the nation. This was a drop from 103,000 music educators in 2007-08. While 93% of elementary schools offered music education, 78% of the schools offered music class only once or twice per week (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). The other 23% offered classes three or more times per week.

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Despite the evidence showing a correlation between language, literacy, and music; music education tends to end up first on the chopping block in schools across the country due to budget cuts.  If our students are no longer attending music classes, how can we give them some of the music exposure in our therapy sessions to compensate?

The Therapy

Here are just a few ideas on how to increase the use of rhythms and music in therapy:

  • Children’s nursery songs: They are full of rhyming patterns, rhythms, and words with complex phonemic patterns.

  • Rhythm-based cues: Clap out syllables with kids working on weak syllable reduction or have difficulty pronouncing longer words.  For the preschoolers, play hand clapping, rhythm games (as a bonus, you indirectly work on gross and fine motor movements, making your OT and PT happy).

  • Theme songs: For my upper elementary and middle school students working on storytelling, sometimes I use sound effects or music clips to give each character or event a “theme song”.  Those same sound effects and music clips can then serve as auditory cues during the retell.

As speech-language pathologists in the schools, we are often presented with challenging cases and asked to to unlock a child’s ability to communicate. Perhaps music could be one of those keys.

Peter Kao, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His interests include early childhood language, fluency, and voice disorders. You may contact Peter on LinkedIn.


Gordon, Reyna L., Hilda M. Fehd, and Bruce D. McCandliss. (2015) "Does music training enhance literacy skills? A meta-analysis." Frontiers in psychology 6.

Gordon, R. L., Shivers, C. M., Wieland, E. A., Kotz, S. A., Yoder, P. J., & Devin McAuley, J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Developmental Science, 18(4), 635-644.

Harrison, E., Wood, C., Holliman, A. J., & Vousden, J. I. (2017). The immediate and longer‐term effectiveness of a speech‐rhythm‐based reading intervention for beginning readers. Journal of Research in Reading.

Slater, J., Strait, D. L., Skoe, E., O'Connell, S., Thompson, E., & Kraus, N. (2014). Longitudinal effects of group music instruction on literacy skills in low-income children. PLoS One, 9(11), e113383.

Strait, D. L., Hornickel, J., & Kraus, N. (2011). Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 7(1), 44.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2013).Number and percentage distribution of teachers in public and private elementary and secondary schools, by selected teacher characteristics: Selected years, 1987-88 through 2011-12. [Table] National Center for Education Statistics.  Retrieved from