People who were better able to tap their finger to a beat showed a more consistent brain response to a repeated speech syllable, scientists found.
The research highlights the importance of understanding the rhythm of a language, as well as its content, say the researchers.
It also suggests that musical training could be used to boost language skills such as reading, they believe.
“Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language,” said study leader Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in the US.
“And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding.”
For instance, tiny timing differences distinguish consonants such as “b” and “p”. Hearing that difference is necessary to match the sounds with the letters, according to the scientists.
In the study, more than 100 teenagers from Chicago were asked to tap their finger in time with a metronome.
They also had their brainwaves recorded as they listened to the synthesised speech sound “da” repeated over a 30-minute period.
The better the participants’ sense of rhythm, the more consistent was their brain response to the sound.
It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read
“It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read,” said Kraus.
The findings appear in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.