Music helps babies develop communication skills

by - Wednesday, May 01, 2013

We've long known the beneficial properties of music for babies. Lullabies or classical music have been used by parents the world over to soothe their babies and help them drift off to sleep, not to mention the benefits of bonding with your infant while singing your favourite songs!

Recent studies have also shown that music can be used as therapy for premature babies to help soothe them and increase the sucking reflex which helped them gain weight. Live music and the sound of a parent singing to the beat of a lullaby was proven to have the biggest impact.

But can music help babies become smarter?

A study by researchers at McMaster university has shown that musical training in infancy has beneficial effects, even before children can walk or talk! The findings show that one-year-old babies who participated in interactive music lessons with their parents showed improved skills in communication, smile more frequently and displayed more sophisticated brain responses to music.

Previous studies have proven the effect for older children (such as the link between learning to play an instrument and increased mathematical ability), but this was the first of its kind to research the benefits of musical training in infancy.

For six months, babies and their parents participated in one of two types of musical instruction. One class involved interactive music making with both parents and babies participating in the activities; learning nursery rhymes, lullabies and songs with actions. The other group was more passive, with infants playing at toy stations while Baby Einstein (classical music) CDs were played in the background.

Researchers learned that babies of the interactive music group displayed a greater appreciation of music than those in the passive group:

Babies who participated in the interactive music classes with their parents showed earlier sensitivity to the pitch structure in music. Specifically, they preferred to listen to a version of a piano piece that stayed in key, versus a version that included out-of-key notes. Infants who participated in the passive listening classes did not show the same preferences. Even their brains responded to music differently. Infants from the interactive music classes showed larger and/or earlier brain responses to musical tones.
- Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind.
However, the most surprising results were visible in the non-musical differences between the two groups:
Babies from the interactive classes showed better early communication skills, like pointing at objects that are out of reach, or waving goodbye. Socially, these babies also smiled more, were easier to soothe, and showed less distress when things were unfamiliar or didn’t go their way.
The clear result of this research seems to be that bonding with parents through interactive musical games helps babies to develop their communication skills more easily.

If you would like to try enjoying such interactive music games with your baby at home, try using some of the techniques researchers employed in their weekly music groups. Invest in some simple percussion instruments, such as maracas or a tambourine and take turns with baby to play in beat to a familiar tune. 

Sing a small number of songs regularly, including some which have actions your little one can recognise and mimic. Some of the nursery rhymes and lullabies in our previous post are ideal for this music play, and may become firm favourites your child sings along with you as she grows to toddlerhood.

To learn more about this study, take a look at the press release from McMaster University, and as always, please feel free to leave your own comments and suggestions below.

Photo credit: scribbletaylor, via Flickr

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