Professional music training and word meaning acquisition: from faster semantic encoding to longer-lasting word representations

Dittinger, E. 1, 2, 3 , Barbaroux, M. 1, 2 , D'Imperio, M. . 2, 3, 4 , Jäncke, L. 5 , Elmer, S. 5 & Besson, M. 1, 2

1 CNRS & Aix-Marseille Université, Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives (LNC-UMR 7291), Marseille, France
2 Brain and Language Research Institute (BLRI), 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France
3 CNRS & Aix-Marseille Université, Laboratoire Parole et Langage (LPL-UMR 7309), Aix-en-Provence, France
4 Institut Universitaire de France (IUF), Paris, France
5 Auditory Research Group Zurich (ARGZ), Division Neuropsychology, Institute of Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Learning new words is a multifaceted task requiring perceptive and cognitive functions. Based on previous evidence showing that music training positively influences speech perception and cognition, we hypothesized that musicians would be facilitated in learning novel words. Specifically, we expected that the musicians? advantage would be reflected by a higher level of performance, as well as by stronger and faster changes in brain electrical activity than in controls, in particular regarding the N400 component of Event-Related Potentials that develops with word learning. We carried out a series of experiments designed to track the temporal dynamics of phonological learning, semantic acquisition and semantic retrieval. As expected, musicians outperformed controls in identifying phonological properties of words, as well as in word meaning acquisition. Moreover, while a frontally distributed N400 developed in both groups after only three minutes of training, in musicians this frontal distribution rapidly shifted to parietal sites, as typically found for N400s to known words. In addition, musicians showed larger centro-parietal N400 effects during the test phase. Both behavioral and electrophysiological results show evidence for faster semantic integration of novel word meanings in musicians compared to controls, and open new perspectives for education in the field of foreign language learning.