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Study: Listening to Music Helps Babies Develop Language

  • VOA News

A new study says babies who listen to music develop language better. (U. of Washington)

A new study says babies who listen to music develop language better. (U. of Washington)

Listening to music with your baby appears to improve the child's brain function, according to new research.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) say that after a “series of play sessions with music,” 9-month-old babies were better at processing music and new speech sounds.

“Our study is the first in young babies to suggest that experiencing a rhythmic pattern in music can also improve the ability to detect and make predictions about rhythmic patterns in speech,” said lead author Christina Zhao, a post-doctoral researcher at I-LABS. “This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills,” she said.

The researchers said music and language are similar in that they have “strong rhythmic patterns.” The ability to distinguish sounds helps babies develop language.

“Infants experience a complex world in which sounds, lights and sensations vary constantly,” said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS. “The baby’s job is to recognize the patterns of activity and predict what’s going to happen next. Pattern perception is an important cognitive skill, and improving that ability early may have long-lasting effects on learning.”

For the study, the researchers had 39 babies participate in 12 15-minute “play sessions” with their parents. For 20 babies, the play sessions involved music, specifically “tapping out the beats in time with the music” with their parents. For 19 in the control group, there was no music and instead, they played with toy cars, and other objects.

“In both the music and control groups, we gave babies experiences that were social, required their active involvement and included body movements — these are all characteristics that we know help people learn,” Zhao said. “The key difference between the play groups was whether the babies were moving to learn a musical rhythm.”

About a week after the play sessions, the babies’ brains were monitored using magnetoencephalography to “see the precise location and timing of brain activity.”

During the brain scans, the babies listened to a “series of music and speech sounds, each played out in a rhythm that was occasionally disrupted.” During the disruptions, researchers were able to see brain activity showing the babies detected them.

Babies in the music group had “stronger brain responses” to the disruptions than babies in the control group. This, researchers say, “suggests that participation in the play sessions with music improved the infants’ ability to detect patterns in sounds.”

“Schools across our nation are decreasing music experiences for our children, saying they are too expensive,” Kuhl said. “This research reminds us that the effects of engaging in music go beyond music itself. Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills that enhance children’s abilities to detect, expect and react quickly to patterns in the world, which is highly relevant in today’s complex world.”

Here's a video about the study: