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Behav Brain Funct. 2011 Oct 17;7:44. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-44.

Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children.

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Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA.



Neural sensitivity to acoustic regularities supports fundamental human behaviors such as hearing in noise and reading. Although the failure to encode acoustic regularities in ongoing speech has been associated with language and literacy deficits, how auditory expertise, such as the expertise that is associated with musical skill, relates to the brainstem processing of speech regularities is unknown. An association between musical skill and neural sensitivity to acoustic regularities would not be surprising given the importance of repetition and regularity in music. Here, we aimed to define relationships between the subcortical processing of speech regularities, music aptitude, and reading abilities in children with and without reading impairment. We hypothesized that, in combination with auditory cognitive abilities, neural sensitivity to regularities in ongoing speech provides a common biological mechanism underlying the development of music and reading abilities.


We assessed auditory working memory and attention, music aptitude, reading ability, and neural sensitivity to acoustic regularities in 42 school-aged children with a wide range of reading ability. Neural sensitivity to acoustic regularities was assessed by recording brainstem responses to the same speech sound presented in predictable and variable speech streams.


Through correlation analyses and structural equation modeling, we reveal that music aptitude and literacy both relate to the extent of subcortical adaptation to regularities in ongoing speech as well as with auditory working memory and attention. Relationships between music and speech processing are specifically driven by performance on a musical rhythm task, underscoring the importance of rhythmic regularity for both language and music.


These data indicate common brain mechanisms underlying reading and music abilities that relate to how the nervous system responds to regularities in auditory input. Definition of common biological underpinnings for music and reading supports the usefulness of music for promoting child literacy, with the potential to improve reading remediation.

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