Professional Music Training and Novel Word Learning: From Faster Semantic Encoding to Longer-lasting Word Representations

  • Dittinger Eva
  • Barbaroux Mylène
  • d'Imperio Mariapaola
  • Jäncke Lutz
  • Elmer Stefan
  • Besson Mireille

ART

On the basis of previous results showing that music training positively influences different aspects of speech perception and cognition, the aim of this series of experiments was to test the hypothesis that adult professional musicians would learn the meaning of novel words through picture–word associations more efficiently than controls without music training (i.e., fewer errors and faster RTs). We also expected musicians to show faster changes in brain electrical activity than controls, in particular regarding the N400 component that develops with word learning. In line with these hypotheses, musicians outperformed controls in the most difficult semantic task. Moreover, although a frontally distributed N400 component developed in both groups of participants after only a few minutes of novel word learning, in musicians this frontal distribution rapidly shifted to parietal scalp sites, as typically found for the N400 elicited by known words. Finally, musicians showed evidence for better long-term memory for novel words 5 months after the main experimental session. Results are discussed in terms of cascading effects from enhanced perception to memory as well as in terms of multifaceted improvements of cognitive processing due to music training. To our knowledge, this is the first report showing that music training influences semantic aspects of language processing in adults. These results open new perspectives for education in showing that early music training can facilitate later foreign language learning. Moreover, the design used in the present experiment can help to specify the stages of word learning that are impaired in children and adults with word learning difficulties.