Does Learning Music Help Students Learn to Read?

If it’s to be believed, a 2018 study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that students who receive music lessons — specifically piano instruction — have an advantage over their non-musical peers when it comes to learning to read, and that learning the piano could potentially be even more beneficial than extra reading lessons.[1]

74 four- and five-year-old children from a school in Beijing, China, who all were native Mandarin speakers, were divided into three pseudorandom groups. The first received three 45-minute piano lessons a week. The second received extra reading instruction for the same time frame. The third received no intervention.

After the six-month trial, the researchers tested the students on their ability to discriminate words based on differences in vowels, consonants, or tone. [It should be noted that many Mandarin words differ only in tone, something that has no equivalent in English.] Better word discrimination usually indicates better phonological awareness — the awareness of each of the sounds that make up words — which is a key component of learning how to read.

The children who had piano lessons showed a significantly increased ability to discriminate between words differing by just one consonant over children who received extra reading lessons. In addition, both subject groups performed better than children who didn’t receive any intervention when discriminating between words based on single vowel differences.

Next, the researchers addressed pitch. They used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, and found that children who received piano instruction had a better sensitivity to differences in tones’ pitch, suggesting that this helped these children better distinguish between different words.

According to Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the senior author of the paper, “There are positive benefits to piano education in young kids, and it looks like for recognising [sic] differences between sounds including speech sounds, it’s better than extra reading.”

However, while piano lessons did help enhance students’ language learning skills, they didn’t appear to have any effect on improving IQ, attention span, or working memory.

There are a number of items that complicate the takeaway from this study, though. First, the researchers were looking primarily at music’s effect on language and speech sounds, not on the process of learning to read. And it didn’t really address comprehension, which only comes from word knowledge and the ability to read fluently. While the piano group may have been able to get a handle on aspects of phonemic awareness, we don’t know if that translated to recognizing the sounds’ relationship with printed letters.

Which brings us to another problem. How do language and speech learning, especially in a language radically different from English in both sound and structure, translate to learning to read? Unlike English, Chinese characters don’t constitute an alphabet, or even a compact syllabary. Instead, the writing system is roughly logosyllabic — a character generally represents an entire syllable of spoken Chinese (compared with each letter in English having its own sound and often needing to be combined with other letters to form a syllable). The syllable may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word.

Also unlike English, a student must learn each individual character, much like using a “whole-word” approach in English, where phonics has been shown to be more effective.

There are studies that indicate people read English and Chinese mostly at the same speeds, English at 382 words per minute and Chinese at the equivalent of 386 words per minute. But that’s just it — we’re talking about an equivalency rather than an absolute, which is misleading. Chinese is a very fast language for a native to read due to the relatively low content of grammar and “filler” words that don’t add to the context. Grammatically speaking, Chinese has been described as “cave man English,” since every word is required for the sentence to work, and nothing extraneous is included, where English is very wordy. Does that mean that Chinese-speaking students actually read fewer words at a given speed than their English-speaking counterparts? And what about their comprehension?

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t indicate that the study had an extremely low sample size (25 students per group). Are we able to effectively extrapolate the results to represent learning in the population as a whole, no matter which language is used?

We’re sure that our readers must have many other questions about this study that they’d like to pose, and we’re eager to hear what you have to say. Please leave us your comments in the section below, and let’s get a discussion going.



[1]iNews. (June 26, 2018). “Learning the piano can help improve language skills as well. ” Retrieved from


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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