What is auditory processing and why is it important?
Auditory processing is how we make sense of the sound that we hear. Whereas hearing is a passive process by which sound is received, auditory processing is an active process that takes the sound and makes meaning out of it in the brain. When we hear a sound, it is received by the ear and it travels to the brain as neural impulses via the cochlear, auditory nerve, midbrain and thalamic structures, to the auditory cortex for processing. The brain decides which, if any, sounds are important and coordinates a response which may involve the whole body. For example, if the sound is a person asking you a question, the brain will process the question and send signals to your speech muscles to be able to deliver an answer to the question. If the sound was a smoke detector, the brain would warn you of a possible fire and prepare your muscles to run away. Disruptions in auditory processing, therefore, can affect our language and conversation skills, from how well we can listen in noisy environments, to how accurately the rapid sounds of speech are matched to symbols like letters and punctuation marks for effective listening, reading, comprehension and writing.
How can music help?
Music, generally, is a non-threatening form of sound, that can actually reduce anxiety, help us to focus better and improve our auditory processing skills. Many people have heard of the “Mozart effect” which suggests that playing Mozart makes you smarter, but there is a growing body of research that supports the benefits of learning any music, particularly during childhood and that these benefits stay with you for life. A study in 2015 by a group of psychiatrists in the USA of 232 children found that musical training strengthens the part of the brain that has a role in working memory, attention, organising and planning ahead. These are very important life skills that will enhance learning across the board. Another study compared the learning of groups of children receiving music instruction with a control group of children who received no music instruction. After two years, the results showed that the children receiving music instruction had stronger language and reading skills, were better listeners in noisy environments and that their brain's response to sound was more accurate than those who did not receive the music instruction. Therefore, if we want children to be better auditory processors, making music would be one of the best activities for them.
Music and language
There is a strong correlation between music and language in that many of the elements of music are also present in spoken language. Pitch, rhythm, timbre (harmonic structure of the sound), intensity (loudness/softness), and duration are all elements that exist in both mediums. It is not surprising then, that there are shared neural pathways for speech and music, and that strengthening musical pathways in the brain opens doors for better language skills.
Music develops the capacity to listen to sounds and be able to separate individual sounds from those around it, a skill required for effective phonemic awareness. Distinguishing the different tones and pitches in music helps with phoneme discrimination for example, by being able to separate "cat" phonetically into “c-a-t”. Music also has it's own built-in reward in that it is enjoyable and captures interest.
Tips for using music as a learning tool
-Use car trips as an opportunity to play, listen, sing and talk about music -Play soft instrumental music or sing lullabies at bedtime to encourage relaxation and
good sleep habits
-Make music in a group for social skills, turn-taking, sharing, learning to separate the
sound of your instrument from other instruments
-Explore sounds in nature– e.g. birdcalls, seaside, wind and thunder -Make instruments using different household objects (shaking, scraping, drumming,
-Be aware of, and vary the auditory environment .eg. day care, school, home, shopping
-Make up your own words to songs and nursery rhymes that you already know
Remember that a piece of music can have several layers of sound, or just one sound if it is a solo acoustic instrument, so vary the musical layers you listen to.
In summary, remember that music is a fabulous resource for learning brains and that the best music for you and your family is the music you all like the best.