Establishing a young child's ability to discern rhythm could hold the secret to overcoming dyslexia, new research has suggested.
The ability of children to hear the beats in music is a "remarkably strong predictor of reading and spelling development", the researchers from Cambridge University found.
The team asked 64 children aged between eight and 13, some with dyslexia and some without, to take part in a number of tasks designed to test whether they could distinguish certain aspects of rhythm.
Professor Usha Goswami, director of the centre for neuroscience in education at Cambridge University, said it soon emerged that the key was distinguishing changes in "rise time" - the time it takes for a sound to reach its peak intensity - which we perceive as the rhythm of music or language.
The study found that children with dyslexia were significantly less sensitive to "rise time" than their non-dyslexic peers. The team then looked at the link between the children's ability in these listening tasks and their reading and spelling development; they found rhythm seemed important for awareness of the sounds within words.
Professor Goswami said introducing pupils to music and rhythm could help them prepare for reading.
"Having an enriched musical environment in nursery should prepare the child for optimal ability in reading because a lot of this rhythmic learning is much more overt in music than language," she said. "We now want to see if interventions can train this system in the brain."
She said engagement with music at this stage should help the brain develop an alternative way of processing information - and therefore be less likely to be dyslexic.
Dr John Rack, head of research at charity Dyslexia Action, welcomed the research and said it flew in the face of previously published research.
"Professor Goswami's work is very interesting and very important," he said. "But it is controversial because lots of people have looked at this and almost always found that while dyslexics face problems with the sounds of language, they deal perfectly well with other sounds - including music. Certainly, a lot of people with dyslexia are very musical and very rhythmical, so there may not be a single cause.
"What is controversial is whether some of this difficulty with processing sounds is more general than language. That is the area for debate."
Dr Rack added: "The research question here is an interesting one. There certainly could be practical applications from understanding more about the way that children first begin to tune into the different kinds of sound patterns in spoken language.
"It is possible that the precursors to difficulties might be seen earlier in development in the awareness of rhythm or pitch, for example. As our understanding of the core difficulties in dyslexia has grown, the opportunities are there for us to understand what other factors may contribute for different individuals."
The research, carried out with Martina Huss, John P Verney, Tim Fosker and Natasha Mead, was published in the journal Cortex.
Exceptions to the rule
Musicians and poets with dyslexia include:
- Damon Albarn
- Noel Gallagher
- Nigel Kennedy
- John Lennon
- Joss Stone
- William Yeats
- Benjamin Zephaniah.