A new study has for the first time shown an association between children’s grasp of musical rhythm and grammar.

Research from the US suggests a child’s ability to distinguish musical rhythm is related to his or her capacity for understanding grammar.

The team behind it have emphasised that more research will be needed to understand the idea, but it may actually be possible for musical education to improve grammar skills.

For example, rhythm could be taken into account when measuring grammar in children with language disorders.

Researchers at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center studied 25 typical, developing 6-year-olds, first testing them with a standardised test of music aptitude.

A computer program prompted the children to judge if two melodies — either identical or slightly different — were the same or different.

Next, the children played a computer game that the research team developed called a beat-based assessment.

The children watched a cartoon character play two rhythms, then had to determine whether a third rhythm was played by “Sammy Same” or “Doggy Different”.

To measure the children’s grammar skills, they were shown a variety of photographs and asked questions about them.

They were measured on the grammatical accuracy of their answers, such as competence in using the past tense.

Though the grammatical and musical tests were quite different, Gordon found that children who did well on one tended to do well on the other, regardless of IQ, music experience and socio-economic status.

To explain the findings, Gordon says one should consider the similarities between speech and music — for example, they each contain rhythm.

In grammar, children's minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases and sentences and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so. In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat.

Perhaps children who are better at detecting variations in music timing are also better at detecting variations in speech and therefore have an advantage in learning language, she suggested.

“I've been thinking a lot about this idea; ‘is music necessary?’” Gordon said.

“Those of us in the field of music cognition, we know — it does have a unique role in brain development.”