The following came to me courtesy of Ben Norman, a music educator for the Clay County school district in Florida, who I’ve known since my undergraduate days at Jacksonville University. It’s a great read that covers a lot of topics related to rhythm, but below is the part on language:
Rhythm is tied to language. Children who recognize differences in rhythm patterns and tap to a beat learn to read and spell more easily. Several beat-keeping skills are impaired in older children with dyslexia. We have found a link between beat keeping and language development in adolescents and in children as young as three years old. What is the connection between rhythm skills and what might appear to be unrelated skills like reading and writing?
There really is rhythm in language, beyond the rhyming of poetry. It is inherently a part of pronunciation. Rhythm matters, even in single words. “Record,” “contrast,” “project,” and “produce” can be either nouns or verbs depending on which syllable is stressed. Running speech also has rhythm. A YouTube search for “drumming to speech” will uncover some nice examples; a personal favorite is the one with the scene from the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie. The video shows a drummer playing along to the rhythms of the dialogue between Willy and Grandpa Joe, so you cannot miss the rhythm in speech. Tabla player Zakir Hussain tells us his father taught him to speak using drum rhythms when he was a baby. In tabla, each finger is assigned a syllable, and playing the tabla is akin to speaking in phrases. In all languages there is a definite rhythmic aspect to spoken language, brought about by alterations in stress, duration, and pitch of the syllables. This was resoundingly brought home to me firsthand when Zakir accompanied me on the congas during a speech on rhythm and language.
Quite simply, rhythm in speech tells us when important information starts and stops. Stressed syllables emerge at roughly regular intervals and, importantly, carry the majority of the information of speech. With an ongoing rhythmic flow, the listener is guided to the important features of the sentence by the expectancy rhythm sets up and, so primed, we understand the content of the spoken word better. With the understanding of spoken speech comes the ability, when learning to read, to make the necessary connections between the sounds of language and its written form.
One of the greatest impediments to successful spoken-word communication is noise. The rhythm of speech helps us. This is because the rhythm in speech helps us fill in the gaps when noise causes us to miss a few words. Just as a rhythm pattern evolves over the course of a measure of music, running speech evolves over time and thus is suited for a slower scale of auditory processing. The strong and weak stresses, phrases, and boundaries of language are relevant to the whole spoken sequence. The ability to reproduce rhythm patterns seems to draw on the same skills required for forming the auditory scenes that comprise hearing speech that is barely audible above noise.
Hearing speech in noise can be partly predicted by one’s ability to tap out rhythm patterns. And the better you are at navigating rhythms — and musicians of any stripe (not just drummers) fall into this category — the more you can capitalize on the rhythmic patterns in speech and eke out what was said despite the noise.The Extraordinary Ways Rhythm Shapes Our Lives | The MIT Press Reader