Musical play may boost understanding and long-term learning in babies

Baby Playing with Xylophones

Study of nine-month-old children showed regular musically-based play sessions improved their ability to process speech sounds and rhythms

Taking babies along to musical play sessions may boost their cognitive skills and have a long-lasting impact on their learning, researchers say.

A study of nine-month-old infants found that regular play sessions arranged around musical activities improved the children’s ability to process speech sounds as well as musical rhythms.

Researchers are now following up with two-and-a-half-year-old toddlers to see whether musical experience at nine months old has benefits for their language development.

In the sessions babies and their parents listened to various renditions of the waltz, including the US favourite Take Me Out To The Ballgame, and tapped out the rhythm on toy drums or simply with their feet.

“The goal was to see whether music experience would train a broader cognitive skill - pattern recognition - and the results suggest that it does,” said Patricia Kuhl, who led the research at the University of Washington in Seattle. “When you learn to recognise auditory patterns, you can predict future sounds, and that’s helpful both to music and speech.”

The researchers assigned 47 babies to a dozen play sessions that were either musical or music-free, but otherwise similar in terms of games and activities. Four weeks later, the scientists measured the infants’ brain responses to patterns in sounds. They found that babies in the music group showed more neural activation than the other group when musical and speech sounds were disrupted. Details are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When we hear someone speak, or listen to music or even hear a door slam, our cognitive pattern detectors know what’s coming next: each word gives a hint to the next one. Each note provides a clue or the one coming next, and a door closing leads the brain to expect footsteps,” said Kuhl.

“Babies listening to music learned the tempo of the waltz, and when that tempo was changed, they noticed right away. We know the music babies became better at patterns generally because they were better both at music and speech,” she added. “Infants got better at detecting patterns and predicting what’s next. What could be better in such a complex world?”

In 2012, scientists in the US proposed that music was not so much a byproduct of language, but a crucial foundation on which babies’ language skills are built. According to Anthony Brandt and others at Rice University in Houston, when infants hear someone speaking, they listen to the patterns made by the units of speech, or phenomes, and the rhythm of the language. The meaning of the words and their emotional content comes later. For that reason, they concluded that music was central to understanding human development.

Asked whether she had any advice for parents with babies, Kuhl said: “At the moment we cannot say that the music exposure had long term effects, but we will know soon if indeed it does.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ian Sample Science editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th April 2016 20.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010