Research underway by faculty in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville is seeking to provide a better understanding of the relationship between music, language, and social development and to use that understanding to help build better communication skills in people, such as those with autism spectrum disorder.
The Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab—housed in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Curb Center for Art,
Enterprise, and Public Policy—is home to two main research groups: a Music and Social Engagement Group directed by Miriam Lense, PhD, and a Rhythm and Grammar Group directed by Reyna Gordon, PhD. Drs. Lense and Gordon are both assistant professors of otolaryngology and psychology at Vanderbilt and co-direct the lab.
Employing methods such as electroencephalography, eye tracking, speech analysis, neuroimaging, genetics, and behavioral coding, investigators are researching various connections between music and social connections. For example, one major area of research is looking at whether people with biomarkers for poor rhythm are at increased risk for developing language and speech disorders. “Rhythm perception involves not only auditory processing, but also a network of brain areas important for movement processes including the basal ganglia, cerebellum, premotor cortex, and supplementary motor area, among others,” said Dr. Lense.
One area of research she highlighted is focused on understanding how neural oscillatory activity synchronizes with predictable rhythmic input, such as music, to support attention and processing of important auditory information.
Another investigation involves examining the rhythm of social engagement in young children with and without autism spectrum disorder. “We examine how children modulate their attention to others based on the rhythmic structure of song and speech,” said Dr. Lense. “We also look at how we can support parent-child relationships through musical activities such as by embedding parenting strategies in musical games.” To help parents, the lab has created a Parent-Child Home Music Toolkit that can be found at https://serenademusicclass.org/home-toolkit/.
Research at the Music Cognition Lab is undertaken by multidisciplinary teams that incorporate a diversity of academic perspectives, including childhood language development, music performance, genomics, developmental psychology, special education, computational modeling, and comparative ethology.
“Ongoing research investigating the neural mechanisms underlying music engagement will further our understanding of how musical activities can be incorporated into assessment and intervention programs in an evidence-based manner,” said Dr. Lense.