Music good for babies' brains

10 May 2012
Music good for babies' brains
Music good for babies' brains

From baby yoga to baby gym, baby swim and even baby dance there seems little that even the tiniest infant can’t do these days.

But before you scoff, hear this: new academic research shows that taking very early music lessons can have a dramatic effect on a growing baby’s brain.

Even before a tot can walk or talk, participating in a music class can encourage better communication skills and more sophisticated brain responses to music.

The key, however, is that the classes have to be interactive: sitting your baby down with a pile of bricks and Ride of the Valkyries blaring in the background won’t cut it.

The research, by academics at Canada’s prestigious McMaster University, shows that regular attendance at an interactive music lesson leads to more smiley, social babies who are easier to soothe and adapt better to foreign environments.

"Many past studies of musical training have focused on older children," says Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind. "Our results suggest that the infant brain might be particularly plastic with regard to musical exposure."

For the study, groups of babies and their parents spent six months taking part in one of two types of weekly music instruction.

One involved interactive music-making and learning lullabies, nursery rhymes and songs with actions. Parents and infants worked together to learn to play percussion instruments, take turns and sing songs.

In the other music class, infants and parents played at toy stations while recordings from the Baby Einstein series played in the background.

Before the study, all the babies had shown similar communication and social development and none had previously participated in other baby music classes.

"Babies who participated in the interactive music classes with their parents showed earlier sensitivity to the pitch structure in music," says Trainor.

Specifically, they preferred to listen to in-tune music rather than a piece that contained out-of-key notes.

Adds Trainor: “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."

Even more surprising, babies from the interactive classes showed better early communication skills, such as pointing at out-of-reach objects or waving goodbye.

Socially, these babies also smiled more, were easier to soothe, and showed less distress when things were unfamiliar.

"There are many ways that parents can connect with their babies," says study coordinator Andrea Unrau.

"The great thing about music is, everyone loves it and everyone can learn simple interactive musical games together."

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