Music makes speech therapy a hit

Call for change

Social impact with a new rhythm

We've all heard the saying before: Practice makes perfect. Repetition does help us learn and hone our skills. While practice is often considered relevant in pursuits like throwing a ball or memorizing multiplication tables, science says that repetition is also the best way to overcome speech sound disorders (SSD). SSDs make it difficult for some to pronounce sounds (phonemes) like "arr" and "sh".

SSDs may (and often do) occur without a cause and are more prevalent than you might expect, affecting one in 12 young people. Those affected face higher risks of bullying from their peers, depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement. Securing dedicated and personal coaching is expensive and can take months—with tens of thousands of people on waiting lists. So, young people who are struggling with SSDs often practice "problem sounds" over and over again—which isn’t just potentially frustrating, it’s also flat-out boring.

But it doesn’t have to be. Today’s educators and therapists have a greater appreciation for individuality, different learning styles and the importance of play in inspiring lifelong learning. The power of music is being explored by innovative educators, too. It’s a sound shift. Children are especially wired to forge connections based on song and, it turns out that by the early age of three, children are more fluent in song than in speech.

For those with SSDs, that presents a unique opportunity. Thanks to an instrumental partnership between Droga5 (part of Accenture Song), Warner Music Group (WMG) and Apple Music, finding one’s true voice is getting easier.

When tech meets human ingenuity

Perfect sounds for problem speech

For a joint team between Warner Music Ireland and Droga5, music struck a chord as an answer for children with SSDs. The solution was inspired by a team member at Droga5, who shared that their sister, an educator in Ireland, had noticed her student’s frustration with the learning materials available for SSDs. The kids found the material babyish and dull. The genius idea: Create a playlist so fine-tuned that children could overcome problem speech patterns by singing along to the songs they love.

Several Droga5 staffers who had personally overcome SSDs were instrumental in developing the model further, sharing necessary context and first-person perspective. The team ended up pitching the idea to Warner Music, one of the "big three" recording companies. As part of Warner Music Group’s corporate social responsibility, the company supports initiatives in music with positive social impact. Internal research revealed that musicians (including WMG’s Ed Sheeran) have long used their art to help with speech sound disorders, so this area was a perfect fit—and had the potential to be a smash hit.

The next step was securing distribution, and as big a lyric database as possible. When Apple Music signed on, bringing a music library of more than 70 million songs as well as lyrics for tracks on its streaming service, a powerhouse partnership was born.

To assemble the perfect playlists, the team used an original Droga5 algorithm developed to analyze song lyrics for phonemes occurring with a certain frequency, as well as other conditions such as proximity to similar sounds and placement within a sentence. Simply, the algorithm crawled through Apple Music’s catalog to pull out the best songs that fit the “rules” for addressing SSDs, keying in on repetition of certain syllables and sounds—'CH', 'D', 'F', 'G', 'K', 'L', 'R', 'S', 'Z' and 'T'.

Along the way, the team consulted with a variety of voices from across the speech and language industry, including 14-year NHS speech and language therapist Anna Biavati-Smith, to sense-check the concept, build additional rules into the algorithm and ensure its value to potential patients. Ultimately, this work became the "single largest data analysis of song lyrics ever," and more than 170 songs were selected for their therapeutic benefits.

The project at launch was cleverly dubbed "Saylists," and boasted 10 curated playlists, each with 10 to 20 songs. Featured artists include Daft Punk, Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas, Coldplay, Justin Bieber and Adele. More specifically: Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” is part of the "D" playlist; Lizzo’s "Good as Hell" and Ed Sheeran’s "Galway Girl" star in the "G" playlist; David Bowie’s "Changes" represents for "CH"; Fatboy Slim’s "Right Here, Right Now" features in "R."

The playlists are exclusive to Apple Music and available to the service's nearly 80 million subscribers.

A valuable difference

Playlists to lift every voice

Music lovers and the media raved about Saylists when it launched in March 2021, receiving 42 million views and more than 150 million impressions in earned media—with zero spent in advertising. Spain’s El Mundo newspaper billed Saylists as the “next great invention.” WMG and Accenture Song were together recognized by Fast Company as two of the world’s “Most Innovative Companies” for bringing Saylists to life. The project was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, too.

Most important was the incredible response from the speech and language community. Saylists were immediately recommended by therapists, and it wasn’t long before young people were singing and rapping like their favorite MCs in therapy sessions. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy expressed its excitement at the project’s release, and members of the department of English Language Teaching at Cambridge University have gone so far as to publish lesson plans based on Saylists and how they can be used in classrooms.

Due to the enthusiastic universal response, the team is exploring the opportunity to expand the project into other countries around the world, with more tunes and playlists, in new languages. For Saylists, that means that the story is potentially just beginning. And that’s music to the ears of young people everywhere affected by SSDs.

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