A new study offers the first biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to reading and language skills.

Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study demonstrates that accurate beat-keeping involves synchronization between the areas of the brain responsible for hearing and movement.

Previous studies have established a relationship between reading ability and neural response consistency; however, explains co-author Nina Kraus, "By directly linking auditory responses with beat-keeping ability, we have closed the triangle."

To carry out the study, Kraus, the director of Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, administered two tests to 124 high school students. The first required students to tap their finger along with the pulse of a metronome in order to measure how accurately they were able to keep rhythm with the device. In the second test, students were fitted with electrodes that measured the consistency of their brain response to a repeated syllable.

In the end, the students who were able to tap along with the metronome with the highest degree of accuracy exhibited a more consistent brain response during the syllable test.

"This is supported biologically," Kraus said. "The brainwaves we measured originate from a biological hub of auditory processing with reciprocal connections with the motor-movement centers. An activity that requires coordination of hearing and movement is likely to rely on solid and accurate communication across brain regions."

Even without peering into the brain, Kraus says it makes sense that beat-keeping and reading and language skills are linked.

"Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language," she said. "And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding."

This is evident, the researcher points out, in the case of emphasis or in detecting the difference between consonants like "B" and "P."

As a result, Kraus hypothesizes that increased musical training may serve as a kind of exercise for the auditory system, "leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read."