Fifteen years ago, I was an English teacher at an inner city high school in Philadelphia. As a way to connect with my students, I decided to teach drums after school. I made this decision on a whim, and what I didn’t know then was that it would transform the professional and creative direction of my life. One moment in particular had a tremendous effect. I had been reaching out to struggling students, and inviting them to come after school and jam with me. One of them was named Brandon, a quiet student who simply could not complete any assignments. I had been working with him individually, but found that he struggled just to write one sentence. I also found that when he and I spoke, I had to give him directions in small chunks, for only then would he accomplish tasks. I was a pretty inexperienced teacher, and I was really scratching my head over how to help him make progress, so I invited him to play drums after school. It took a while, but he finally showed up. He shyly sat down behind a drum set and I began to teach him what I always teach new students – the basic rock groove. This groove is based on two beats, and it repeats itself every four seconds. At the same time, when played correctly, it sounds like the beat of pretty much every rock, hip-hop, or pop song ever written. It is a simple way to make the students feel like they have accomplished something very quickly. Once they feel that success, they are more confident to take on more tricky challenges.
Teaching Brandon the basic rock groove, I was stunned by what I heard. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get his body to play more than two beats. One, two, stop. Restart. One, two, stop. Restart. It was frustrating for him to endure, and confusing for me to see. Suddenly, I realized that he could not sequence the steps in the pattern. He could play beat one, and allow that to lead into beat number two, simply because the second beat was the physical carry-through of the first beat. But when it came time to repeat that step, to hold on to what he had just heard and performed, he could not do it. Every time he executed the rhythm, it was like he was starting from square one all over again. I realized that this was how Brandon was processing everything he heard around him. He was hearing sentences one at a time, not as part of a larger discourse composed of ideas woven together. Similarly, when it came to writing, he could only process his ideas one at a time. He could not string together ideas from one sentence to the next. I was frustrated by the fact that I did not know how to help him. I had a hunch, however, that the answer was hidden in the drumming.
As an English teacher who plays the drums, I have spent the past fifteen years searching for a way to bring together language and rhythm in the classroom in ways that benefit students who struggle with language. Our educational system is arranged in such a way that students are forced to process language all day. Can drumming help those who are most at risk? Can it help students improve the ways in which they process and, ultimately, comprehend language?
To answer this, we must understand what rhythm is, and how it influences both music and language. Only then can we see if musical rhythm, as expressed when we play drums together in groups, can influence the rhythms of language. In Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniruddh Patel provides a detailed definition of rhythm, and demonstrates that if we are to consider its influence on language then we must acknowledge the similarities and differences between musical and linguistic rhythm.
As a whole, rhythm refers to the concept of periodicity, or patterns that repeat periodically (Patel 98). To musicians, periodicity refers to a repeating pattern set against a backbeat of some kind. Whether it is the stately dance of a sarabande, or the driving drums on side two of Zeppelin IV, musicians use rhythm as a guideline for where to place their melodies and harmonies. But rhythm happens all around us – our circadian rhythms keep us healthy, and the rhythm of the seasons help us track the years passing by. And these patterns, while definitely rhythmic, do not proceed in periodically repeating patterns. They ebb and flow with time. That does not mean they are not rhythmic. In the same way, the rhythm of spoken language serves different purposes and exhibits different qualities from musical rhythm. Whereas musical rhythm relies on the periodic repetition of stresses and beats, linguistic rhythm relies more on ways in which patterns of emphasis and duration are grouped together (159). Musical rhythm deals with the patterning of sounds in terms of timing; linguistic rhythm deals with the patterning of sound in terms of prosody and duration of sounds (98, 112).
Prosody is crucial to processing language. It refers to the elements of language that allow for expressiveness, including vocal pitch or intonation, loudness, and importantly, rhythm (Mannell 2007). As Patel has pointed out, prosodic rhythm refers to how long a syllable lasts. This is referred to as duration (Mannell 2007). When we emphasize words in spoken language, that emphasis comes not only from the loudness of that particular word, but also by lengthening the amount of time that the word takes in comparison to the other words in the sentence. This lengthening and shortening of duration as we speak essentially creates the rhythmic patterning that Patel speaks of. The constantly shifting duration of words in spoken language create a distinction between linguistic and musical rhythm. To put it simply, language has no backbeat. Therefore, in order to see how rhythm affects language, we must begin to view rhythm as more than simply periodicity. “By abandoning a fixation on periodicity one is freed to think more broadly about speech rhythm and its relationship to musical rhythm” (Patel 159). When we do this, we begin to see some cognitive and neurological correlates between linguistic and musical rhythm, and thus establish an important relationship between language and music.
The greatest connection can be found in those patterns created by prosody that we discussed above, and which Patel refers to as prosodic groupings. Spoken language, especially English, tends to contain alternating patterns of strong and weak syllables. Therefore, we hear changes in the duration and loudness of words when we listen to someone speak. These rhythmically repeating patterns enable listeners to make predictions about the end of sentences, and to create mental boundaries around what we hear. In other words, the prosody of spoken language allows us to understand when ideas begin and end, and the rhythmic patterning of prosody – the ways in which accents and duration of sounds and syllables are grouped into phrases, helps us process the meaning of language more effectively (139 - 150). Consider the various ways to say the following group of words: Come to the store with me now. If we raise the pitch of our voice at the end of the sentence, we are asking a question. If we lower the pitch and extend the duration of “now”, we are giving a command. If we extend the duration of the word “me”, while simultaneously raising its pitch, we are expressing some kind of preference. Come with me, not someone else. Similarly, composers use accents and shifts in duration to signal changes in their music. A common example of this is the lengthening of the final note in order to signal that the piece is coming to a close. Therefore, as a result of a wider perspective on rhythm, one that takes into account shifts in duration and fluctuations in pitch, we begin to see similarities between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm. Taking it a step further, we can also begin to see that there are some underlying neurological correlates when it comes to processing both musical information and linguistic information (174). Already, I can begin to feel glimmers of hope for students like Brandon. If there are indeed rhythmic connections between music and language in the brain, then the Basic Rock Groove just may help them after all!
We must remember, however, that Brandon could only process language in small chunks. He lacked the ability to hear the rhythms of language that Patel speaks of, and this was clearly reflected in his inability to hear and repeat musical patterns. If I could go back in time, would it be possible, armed with this new understanding of ways in which musical rhythm can mirror linguistic rhythm, to help him out by playing the basic rock groove? To answer this question, we must dig deeper, and look at the work of Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist studying the relationships between rhythm and language in the brain. Kraus takes Patel’s ideas one-step further by looking at the precise areas of the brain which process rhythm, leading us to a discussion of Auditory Temporal Processing, which is the time it takes for us to process what we hear. In one compelling study from 2015, Kraus and her associate, Samira Anderson, found that the ability of children between the ages of three and four to synchronize with a rhythm was a predictor of future reading ability. “The synchronizers had more accurate brainstem processing of speech … [as well as] higher pre-reading skills (phonological processing, auditory short-term memory, and rapid naming)” (Kraus, Anderson 2015). Reading this, I can remember watching Brandon trying so hard to play along with my beat, and failing over and over again. Then I thought of him trying so hard to understand what I was saying to him in class. Is this the connection I have been looking for?
Kraus shows us that “Impaired temporal processing reduces the accuracy of sound to meaning connections that are the necessary building blocks for learning to read” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). A student who processes more slowly has reduced accuracy in their comprehension. She continues, “The ability to follow the rhythms of speech is one aspect of temporal processing that has been linked to reading ability” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). And there it is: the connection between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm, the ability to predict meaning based on prosodic groupings, the capacity to comprehend what we hear in a timely and accurate fashion. All of it relates back to the rhythms of language. The longer it takes for us to process what we hear, the worse our ability to perceive those rhythms becomes. We hear words, and in our labor to process them, we miss the important rhythmic cues that give our words additional meaning. As our ability to perceive those rhythms decreases, our comprehension of language decreases with it. In this way, we can see that language, rhythm and comprehension are intrinsically linked. Kraus also argues, “meaningful information unfolds simultaneously over multiple timescales in both speech and music, from overarching rhythms and stress patterns, to the fine-grained timing differences which differentiate consonants and characterize the distinctive timbre of a voice or musical instrument” (Kraus, Slater 208).
So now I return to my original question. Can drumming help children like Brandon? Well, if we hear what Kraus and her colleagues are saying, it seems as if drums alone can’t do it. Additionally, as Patel pointed out, the backbeat found in music doesn’t generalize to language. But as both researchers have shown, the other aspects of rhythm that appear in music – timbre, duration, pitch fluctuation and stress - are incredibly important in language. So what’s the answer? In my experience, the answer can be found in improvisation. This is a visceral and engaging musical form that meets the students at whatever ability or experience level, providing them with a musical experience in which they must synchronize with rhythms around them, and also listen intensely to the expressions being played – paying close attention to the rising and falling of pitches, similar to linguistic intonation, imitating and responding to both subtle and wild shifts in dynamic range, similar to the variations in loudness found in language. In addition, they must listen carefully to what their peers are playing, noting when musical expressions begin and end around them so that they can complement them and contribute appropriately to the music. This final piece is the most powerful aspect of improvisation because it so closely mimics the rhythms of language – the ways in which prosodic groupings can suggest meaning. Not only that, but for students like Brandon, who struggle with processing speed and working memory, improvising with peers enables those peers to support him. As they create music together, Brandon is not left alone behind the drum kit trying to find the beat like he was that afternoon so long ago. He is in a group working together to create music, and his part in that creation is valued, no matter what his contribution. In addition, improvisation provides him with real-time feedback about where the beat can be found, and how his contributions are working. It engages him in a much more intuitive way, and can hold his attention because, in improvising, he is working with a group of peers, and they all must work together in order to make the music happen.
One example of how we mimic linguistic rhythm can be found in an improvisational game called “The Soap Opera”. This game works well with High School aged students. One student begins by making up a line from an imaginary soap opera. I model some silly examples, and encourage the students to play up the melodrama. Once a line is spoken, another student sitting at the keyboard must make a sound that responds to what was spoken. For example, a student might accuse another of murder, and the music should reflect this shocking accusation - perhaps a dark, percussive chord created by banging on the keys. In this way, the students are listening to spoken language, and responding with musical language. They are bringing together the two different modalities and exercising their auditory temporal processing abilities. Not only that, they don’t even realize they are doing it because they having so much fun pretending to be on a soap opera! For Middle School aged students who may not be as uninhibited as their older counterparts, we often use a game called the Fish Hook. In this game, one student begins by creating a repeating pattern, usually on a xylophone. Once the pattern becomes repeated, the next player joins in by either imitating what they hear or adding something new. Players continue to layer in sounds until we have the whole group jamming together. The ability to hear when a melody begins and ends tells the students when to join in, and as the piece progresses and develops, students must pay extra close attention to and play along with several elements – the rhythm or groove, so that they can stay together, but also the more subtle shifts in the piece, such as fluctuations in volume, shifts in dynamics, and changes in timbre. In this way, they are practicing fundamental musical skills, but also mimicking the rhythmic aspects of language, and doing so in a fast paced, totally immersive experience that requires them to exercise how well they process what they hear and how quickly they do it.
Improvisation can be done using simple-to-play instruments such as hand drums, wooden xylophones, or other diatonically tuned instruments. In this way, students are free to experiment any way they choose, while at the same time focusing on and practicing those elements of music that are so close to language. It is important to consider that if Brandon could not execute a simple groove on drum set, it is possible that improvising in the ways described above will be even more difficult. However, removing the concept of periodicity from the ways in which we play with rhythm in the music classroom not only makes improvising easier than executing a back beat, it also works in such a way that it can be done at any pace, and at any ability level. It is scalable to the students’ experience, processing speed, and ability, and is therefore more powerful than simply drumming. In addition, in the years since working with Brandon, I have seen improvisation help many other students who struggle similarly to process language begin to open up, communicate more clearly, and as a result improve both their expressive language and their interpersonal skills. Consequently, the music classroom can become a place where students are encouraged to practice both musical and linguistic skills, all the while working together to create music that can be, at times, wild and unpredictable, and at others, beautiful and distinct. Immersing students in music in this way may involve a reimagining of how we teach music, but it must happen if we are to help students like Brandon. Knowing what we do about how music and language are related, we have a responsibility as music educators to use this information to help our most at-risk students exercise their language processing in such a humanistic and intuitive way. Taking a broader view of music, rhythm, and language, we can help children like Brandon move beyond the basic rock groove, and develop skills that not only improve their musicianship, but their future as well.
Kraus, Nina, PhD, and Samira Anderson, Aud,PhD. "Beat-Keeping Ability Relates to Reading Readiness." Hearing Journal (2015): 54-56. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
Kraus, Nina, and Jessica Slater. "Music and Language: Relations and Disconnections." Handbook of Clinical Neurology 3rd ser. 129 (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.
Mannell, Robert. "Phonetics and Phonology: Introduction to Prosody Theories and Models." MacQuairie University. MacQuairie University - Department of Linguistics, 2007. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. 2nd. edition ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010. Print.