Think about your favorite song. Do you sing along? Do you tap your foot? Do you dance? Music is all around us, but it’s more than fun; it also plays an important role in children’s development. Starting early in life, the music in our environment and culture helps children learn.
1) Language and music
Researchers at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, at the University of Washington were interested to see what happens in the brains of infants who are exposed to rhythm patterns in music. So, they created 12-week play sessions for 9-month-old infants and their caregivers. During the sessions, one group of caregivers bounced infants along to music. They listened and bounced to waltzes, which have a particular beat pattern. These classes were social and interactive, things we already know are important for learning. Another group played with blocks and other toys in a social setting, but they did not listen and bounce along to music.
After the 12 weeks of music play sessions, the researchers wanted to see how the music exposure influenced brain activity. They used a special, non-invasive brain imaging technique called magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to see where and when the brain was activated. The infants listened to a series of music rhythms and speech rhythms. Sometimes these regular rhythm patterns were disrupted. The researchers found that babies who were in the music play group had stronger brain responses to disrupted patterns in both music and speech sounds. These strong responses happened not only in auditory regions of the brain, but also in the prefrontal cortex in regions that are important for predicting and processing patterns.
This study suggests that listening and moving to music at a young age may help infants learn the rhythm and patterns of language.
2) Playing music in a group helps children develop social skills
How does music influence children’s social development? Have you ever encouraged your child to dance with you or swung your arms together to the beat of a song? Moving to the beat in synchrony, or at the same time with another person, may help children build their social-emotional skills.
Researchers at McMaster University in Canada help children develop emotional bonds with other people. In the study, 14-month-olds infants either bounced in synchrony the experimenter, or out of sync with the experimenter. Next the experimenter dropped a clothespin on the floor, and pretended to be unable to pick it up. The infants who bounced in sync with the experimenter were more likely to pick up the pin! Experiencing coordination with the experimenter made infants more likely to help the adult. This suggests that synchronized movement to music may support children’s social development.
3) Children develop executive function skills
Imagine learning to play an instrument. What kinds of things do you have to master? You have to focus to make the correct notes, and know when to play them (and when it’s someone else’s turn to play!). You have to learn to read music and remember all of the details about your part in the song. And you have to use flexible thinking skills, sometimes reading two lines of music at once, or doing one thing with one hand, and something else with the other. And you have to think creatively if you write your own music.
All of these skills – attention and focus, controlling impulses, flexible thinking, and working memory – are what researchers call executive function skills. Children who have strong executive function skills are usually better at waiting for their turn, coming up with new solutions to problems, and shutting out distractions in the environment. Executive functioning is a good predictor of later success in school and all children can develop these skills with practice. Through playing music, both adults and children are able to build and strengthen their executive function skills.
Sing, dance, and play to the beat!: To bring music into your child’s life, play your favorite music! Sing, dance, or drum along – make it fun. Enjoying music together with your child also means you are supporting their development!
For more information, please visit: http://modules.ilabs.uw.edu/module/early-music-experience/
Cirelli L. K., Einarson K.M., & Trainor, L. J. (2014). Interpersonal synchrony increases prosocial behavior in infants. Developmental Science, 17, 1003-1011.