She probably didn't realize it, but your preschool teacher very likely provided your first reading lesson when she cranked up “Yellow Submarine” and handed you a noisemaker. Today a symphony of research trumpets the many links among language, reading and music, including several that reveal a connection between rhythm and reading skills. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University has discovered a possible explanation: the brains of good beat keepers respond to speech more consistently than the brains of people whose toes do not tap in time. After testing 124 adolescents for beat-keeping ability, the researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to eavesdrop on teen brains as the consonant sound “da” was played repeatedly. With every “da,” the brains of beat keepers responded consistently, even when there was background noise or while they watched television. The brain waves of poor beat keepers, however, were all over the place.

The study helps to explain why music may hold a key to improved reading. Because reading ability, in general, relies on making a connection between the sounds of letters and symbols on a page, music provides another avenue into learning. “Through music, you learn to pay attention to important sounds,” Kraus says. The inconsistent sound processing shown by the poor beat keepers makes that difficult. “If you have an auditory system that automatically is able to efficiently pull out sounds that are meaningful, it's going to be important not just for music but for speech.