Musique - Language - Writing

Music,Language & Writing (MuLaW).

Responsable d'équipe


Our aim is to explore how music and writing contribute to language learning. To address these general  questions  we  will  use  sophisticated  measures  of  behavior  (auditory  psychophysics,  finegrained  kinematics)  together  with  different  measures  of  brain  activity  and  brain  structure  (ERPs, functional and structural MRI) both in children and in adults, without and with learning disabilities (or movement disorders). A critical factor for an efficient approach of learning is the development of optimal training paradigms, which are at the core of all the proposed projects.


1. Music training and word learning

Thanks  to  the  support  of  the  ILCB (,  we  are  currently  conducting  a  series  of  experiments  in professional musicians, in musically trained children (8-12 year-old) and in control participants using a novel word-learning paradigm that allows examining changes in brain activity during both a study phase and a test phase. This paradigm includes a syllabic categorization task, a word learning study phase (through picture-word associations) and a test phase comprising a matching task (to determine whether participants had learned the associations) and a semantic task (to test for the generalization of 70 word learning to semantic associates). The aim is to examine the influence of musical expertise on word learning. The first results are very exciting in showing fast brain plasticity in both children and adults, as reflected  by  the emergence  of an  N400  after  only  three  minutes  of  learning  picture-word associations as well as stabilized N400 effects in the matching and semantic tasks  (Figure 1). Most importantly,  these  effects  are  larger  and  develop  faster  in  musicians  than  in  controls,  and  they  are accompanied  by  higher  level  of  word  learning  performance.  These  findings  strongly  highlight  the positive influence of music training on word learning, one of the most specifically human abilities.

1.1. Music across the lifespan

The  influence  of  music training  on  word  learning,  as  quickly  described  above,  is  remarkably similar  in  young  adults  and  in  children.  In  collaboration  with  S.  Elmer  and  L.  Jäncke  from  the University of Zurich, we are now planning to test older adults, musicians and non-musicians. This will allow us to examine how brain plasticity changes across development, to specify the impact of musical expertise  on  brain  activity  and  behavior.  In  particular,  this  paradigm  is  well  suited  to  test  the hypothesis that music training across the life span helps preserve executive functions (task switching and  memory  updating).  We  will  also test  whether  the  positive  influence  of  music training  on  word learning is long lasting by testing participants again 2 months after they performed the first session.

1.2. The cascade and multi-dimensional interpretations

Two  main  models  can  account  for  the  finding  that  music  training  facilitate  word  learning. Following  the  “cascade”  model,  increased  auditory  sensitivity  is  the  driving  force  behind  enhanced word learning  in  musicians  (enhanced  auditory  perception  and  attention  lead  to  stable  phonological representations that are more easily associated  to specific meanings in semantic memory).  Following the  multi-dimensional  model,  music  training  improves  several  functions  that  are  relevant  for  novel word learning,  not only auditory perception and attention but also short-term memory and executive functions. To disentangle these two models, we will use two complementary approaches. One will use methods from auditory psychophysics to train specific aspects of auditory perception and to determine whether  perceptual  training  with  harmonic  sounds  transfers  to  syllabic  perception  and  to  word learning.  Positive  results  would  argue  in  favor  of  the  cascade  model.  The  other  approach  will  use methods from memory research to train associative memory with visual and auditory stimuli and to examine  transfer  effects  to  word  learning.  In  this  case,  positive  findings  would  be  in  line  with  the multi-dimensional  model.  In  both  series  of experiments,  we  will examine  the  effects of  training  on behavior (using structural equation modelling to test for the causality of training type on the dependent variables), on brain plasticity and on functional connectivity.

2. Writing training and word learning


2.1. Learning  how  to  write  words:  impact  of  digital  tools  in  children,  adolescents  and adults

Writing, like music, is an acquired expertise, driven by cultural factors. Up to now, we focused on the neural basis of handwriting and reading in adults (see figure below),  mostly at the level of single letters. Now,  we  will  1)  study  writing  and  reading  at  the  scale  of  whole  words,  considering  the orthographic, phonological and semantic levels; 2) compare “traditional” handwriting (pen) vs writing with new  digital tools (keyboards) and 3) use a developmental approach, testing  adults, adolescents and children. This research has a strong societal impact for Education and for acquisition of literacy.

This  general  approach  will  be  developed  in  two  projects.  The  first  one  aims  at  studying  the development of orthographic skills in 8 to 12 years old and the emergence of functional specificity in writing neural networks (funded by ANR: “ECRIRE”). The second one will compare the effects of learning a new language based on a different writing system (Arabic) either with a pen or with a tablet keyboard  (funded  by  e-Fran:  “ARABESC”,  in  coll.  with  ESPE  researchers).  Using  a  longitudinal approach with 120 children over their four years of middle school education, we will test the impact of learning a new graphic system using behavioral, MRI and fMRI methods.

These projects will allow the  construction  of a database  of structural and diffusion MRI data  in adults and  children whom  reading and  writing habits and skills will be  precisely quantified.  We will therefore be able to assess  the  possible structural  brain  modifications driven by writing  learning and expertise.


2.2. Multisensory  integration  in  sonified  handwriting

The aim is  to understand  how  the  brain  integrates  multimodal  information  (from  vision,  proprioception  and audition) during learning of handwriting. An interesting way of studying multisensory integration is to use the  paradigm of sensory weighting that consists in  modulating the level of  congruence between auditory,  visual and proprioceptive information  during  different learning steps.  We will then investigate the neural substrate of multisensory integration using EEG recorded during handwriting production. M. Besson uses this method in our team and the team of J.  Blouin in the laboratory uses EEG for studying visuo-proprioceptive conflict (J. Danna is involved in this study). We will also use fMRI to examine how the neural networks allowing the control of handwriting are modulated by the presence/absence of visual and auditory feedback, and by the congruence between them. This is now possible thanks to the MRI compatible digital tablet developed by our team, which allows the on line display of the trace on a screen (Longcamp et al., 2014).

Finally, in  Parkinson’s  disease.  Studying  multisensory  integration  (proprioceptive,  visual,  and auditory) in Parkinson’s disease  will allow  addressing two questions.  First, can sonification act as a “sensory prosthesis” helping parkinsonian  patients suffering  from a proprioceptive deficit to feel their movements  better?  In  other  words,  we  plan  to  evaluate  the  impact  of  substituting  audition  to proprioception in Parkinson’s disease. Second, can sonification improve motor control in Parkinson’s disease?  The specific aim is  to determine whether using real-time auditory cueing (with sonification) allows patients to use brain areas not affected by Parkinson’s disease, as already observed in the case of music-based movement therapy.