Honour roll

20 minutes of singing every morning: a magic recipe? - Aline Frey, Young Researcher Award 2020

On 16 February, researcher Aline Frey (LNC) received the Provence 2020 Young Researcher Award for her work on the influence of choral singing on the development of cognitive functions and on basic school learning.

Notice to the curious! Let’s discover the work of Aline Frey, a member of the “Music, Language, Writing” (MULAW) team of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (LNC)!

Aline Frey is the lucky winner of the “Young Researcher Award 2020”. These departmental prizes for research in Provence reward researchers, young researchers, collaborators and research teams who have recently distinguished themselves by the originality of their work or its impact on civil society and the economy of Provence, nationally and internationally.

This is an opportunity to talk about Aline Frey’s studies on the influence of musical practice, and more particularly choral singing, on the development of cognitive functions and on fundamental school learning. Before that, a little presentation is in order.

Aline Frey

Aline Frey published a PhD thesis entitled "Perceptual and cognitive processing of auditory and musical information: segmentation of sound flows and figures" at the Laboratoire Cognitions Humaine et Artificielle (CHArt, Paris).
After a position as a lecturer at the INSPE (Institut National Supérieur du Professorat et de l'Éducation) of the University of Paris-Est Créteil, she obtained a position as a lecturer in learning psychology at the INSPE of Aix-Marseille University.
She joined the "Music, Language, Writing" (MULAW) team of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, which explores how music and writing contribute to language learning. 


Musical practice and language learning

The research of Aline Frey and her team “Music, Language and Writing” at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory focuses on the influence of musical practice on learning abilities, and more specifically on general cognitive abilities (memory, auditory attention, etc.) and language. The researchers speak of a learning transfer between music and language:

How can the practice of a musical activity indirectly improve language skills or comprehension?

By focusing on choral singing, Aline Frey wishes to shed light on the cognitive and behavioural effects of this daily practice. Her hypothesis is based on various common points, including

  • Prosody (in music, prosody corresponds to the set of rules concerning the relationships of quantity, intensity, and accentuation between music and words) of singing as of language
  • Rhythm
  • The organisation of words and musical notes
  • Certain brain networks are shared between auditory stimuli linked to speech and singing 

It would therefore be enough to test an experimental group that practices music or singing and a control group that does not to see the impact of their practice on language skills. Easy … or not!

All other things being equal.

All researchers try to establish the same experimental conditions for their experimental and control groups. However, several other variables (differences between individuals in the experimental and control groups) may become “confounded” with the variable studied in the experiment (in this case, the impact of choral singing). This complicates the demonstration of causality between the conditions of the experiment and the variable studied, i.e. knowing what is directly linked to musical practice or not. In these so-called “confounded” variables, we find in particular genetic predispositions, a favourable social environment, motivational effects between experimental and control groups, etc.

Aline Frey explains her solutions for establishing causality in her study:

  • Study groups of non-musicians to correctly observe an improvement in skills.
  • Carry out longitudinal studies, over time, to test the impact of musical practice on the evolution of skills from a point in time.
  • Conduct a comparison with a control group that engages in an activity as challenging as singing or playing music, to avoid bias related to motivational effects.

Singing on a daily basis, but why?

Aline Frey is working on a civil society project to conduct a study on the daily practice of choral singing in schools.

The Musicatreize association, a national vocal arts centre, has set up an experimental project called “Chanter au quotidien”. The aim? A daily 20-minute session of choral singing with pupils of the Saint-Mitre primary school (13013 Marseille) conducted with a professional teacher, Laetitia Volcey. In order to support the results and the effects of this workshop on the children, Musicatreize has joined forces with the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (LNC) to carry out a study on this daily practice of choral singing at school.

Aline Frey: “Roland Hayrabedian [creator and director of Musicatreize] contacted us, in agreement with the teaching teams, to scientifically objectify the effects of these periodic choral singing sessions.”

"Chanter au quotidien"

To support this experimentation, Aline Frey and the “Music, Language, Writing” team propose to study the effects of this practice on children’s learning and development in a comparative study. In order to compare, it is necessary to create a control group that performs a stimulating activity to avoid motivational bias. The project is therefore being extended with another art workshop, run by La Marelle, an association that aims to design and organise public meetings with writers. In the same conditions as the choral workshops, Laura Vazquez (La Marelle) works daily on twenty-minute sessions of creative writing. With the pupils, she works on activating the imagination, stimulating it and having fun with writing.

The experimental and control groups are formed! Let’s get started!

Since September 2020, pilot studies have begun on 7 classes at Sainte-Mitre school: 3 CE1, 2 CM1, 2 CM2, with, in each case, a class in the choral workshop and a class in the creative writing workshop (and a “control” CE1 class that does not participate in either the singing or the writing workshop).

“Assessments were carried out on the pupils at the beginning of the year and others will be carried out at the end of the school year. This will allow us to determine the precise contribution of these workshops on the child.”

The children undergo two and a half hours of psychological tests, presented in the form of games, which will enable us to assess their language and comprehension skills, before the choral or creative writing workshop. These tests explore verbal and non-verbal skills as well as musicality and rhythm. An example? The similarity test, where two words are given: the child has to find the common point between these two words.

A pilot study

The aim of this pilot study is to highlight the phenomena of brain plasticity through an applied research project.

The set of changes in the brain structure itself (making new connections between neurons), which depends on learning and experience, constitutes brain ‘plasticity’.

For this experiment, the subjects chosen were primary school pupils. The younger the subject, the greater the brain plasticity. 

Aline Frey and her team hypothesise that choral singing can improve children’s cognitive (concentration and attention) and language skills. It is a group practice requiring auditory attention and perception capacities shared between the choir leader and the other pupils. Conversely, it is hypothesised that children in the creative writing workshop will tend to develop creative and fine motor skills (holding a pencil).

It will be necessary to wait until the end of the school year to have the pupils undertake the same tests as those taken at the beginning of the year and to perceive potential improvements in language skills or concentration in the group that practised choral singing compared to the group that practised the creative writing workshop. 

We will definitely keep you informed of the results!

Applied research needed

The associations, teachers and researchers of the “Mulaw” team hope to see this project continue. The aim would be to follow young pupils over several years, so as to perceive their evolution on a wider time scale. One area for improvement would be to better describe the social environment of the pupils in the experimental and control groups in order to avoid as much bias as possible. Aline Frey would also like to correlate a functional analysis (thanks in particular to EEG) and cognitive tests to show the plastic evolution of brain structures.

Congratulations to Aline Frey and her team for this research project which is directly linked to societal demand. Her position as a lecturer at the INSPE of Aix-Marseille University leads her to train the teachers of tomorrow, to ask questions in the field and to create an exchange with the scientific community.

Want a quick summary? Watch the video to meet Aline Frey!

Departmental Prize for Research in Provence 2020 / Winner of the Young Researcher Prize: Aline Frey
Emma Duboc Stagiaire Communication

Diplômée d'une Licence de biologie et d'un Master de communication scientifique, je souhaite apporter ma pierre au pont qui relie le monde secret de la science et notre société !

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