Learning to discriminate musical rhythm helped 9-month olds process language information
Music is a natural part of our interactions with children. Many parents instinctively use singing to calm their infants, to entertain them, or to enliven play situations. Even those who do not sing typically speak to their infants in “motherese” or “fatherese” – a way of speaking that exaggerates intonation and rhythm, thereby mimicking many aspects of music. Why is this so? Are there specific benefits to including music in the everyday lives of developing children? Many parents imagine that playing classical music to their child will foster optimal brain development. This conception probably stems from the infamous Mozart effect study that showed improved performance in a cognitive task after listening to Mozart.
This finding gained much attention, giving rise to, among other things, a business of selling music recordings to parents with the promise of making their children smarter. Later studies on the topic of cognitive enhancement showed that music listening can in fact enhance cognitive functioning, but that these effects are by no means restricted to Mozart, as the same effects could be obtained through pop music or even from listening to a pleasant audio book. Further, these effects are explained by the elevation of the listener’s mood and arousal, rather than the structure of the music.
In addition to music listening, a popularly held belief is that training on a musical instrument will make a child smarter. Just as in the case of the Mozart effect, it sadly isn’t exactly so. Music lessons will not transform a child into a genius, but that is not to say they have no effect on development. In fact, there is accumulating evidence on how music training as well as less formal musical play can augment the development of motor and auditory skills, social skills and attention skills as well as their underlying brain mechanisms. In short, music training, or actually anything that you regularly practice, changes the brain and hones the set of skills needed for the activity.
This is interesting in itself, but many may wonder, is there any benefit from the augmentations that result from music training?
One of the most clearly demonstrated transfer of effects of music training is on language. Previous studies have found that music training can support reading abilities, pitch discrimination, as well as foreign language acquisition. Findings like these lend support to the notion that perhaps music training could be of use in early language development. So when should someone start learning music to access the greatest benefits for language development? Recently, a group of researchers arranged a music intervention for nine-months-olds to see whether music training this early in a child's development might support language learning.
In the study1, infants were randomly assigned to either an intervention or a control group. The infants in the intervention group attended 12 15-minute musical play sessions over a period of four weeks. In the sessions, infants came to a specially designed room at the lab--with their caregivers. This way the listening conditions could be monitored and the researchers could control that each infant received the same amount of training. The sessions resembled the informal activities and interactions that naturally take place between caregivers and children, and that have previously been found2 to influence the development of basic auditory processing. In each session, the caregiver and infant listened to music while moving together (bouncing, tapping the foot, playing maracas) and attempting to synchronize to the beat of the music. Researchers played children’s music in triple meter (such as a waltz).
The infants in the control group attended the same amount of free play situations in the lab but without any music. Before and after the intervention, the infants took part in a MEG measurement where their brain responses to changes musical and language stimuli were recorded. The infants were presented with repeating sets of musical tones in triple meter or three syllables interspersed with infrequent sounds that deviated from the standard sound series in terms of rhythm. The brain responses to these deviations in rhythm would indicate how well the infants had learned to discriminate changes in musical and language stimuli.
According to the results, the brain responses to deviations in music as well as language stimuli were larger in the infants in the musical intervention group compared to those in the control group. This means that being exposed to and synchronizing with music in triple meter made these infants more adept at detecting changes in such musical rhythm. Interestingly, learning to discriminate musical rhythm also facilitated the processing of this information in language! The results imply that from very early on, musical activities can shape the infant brain and enhance capabilities of processing acoustic features. Not only that, this type of musical activity can also transfer to the domain of language, perhaps supporting the acquisition of important language skills. Importantly, this type of facilitation does not seem to require special training but is something any caretaker can provide: enrich the learning environment with music, and listening and moving together to music in the midst of play.
Written By Ketki Karanam
1. Zhao, T. C., & Kuhl, P. K. (2016). Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of
temporal structure in music and speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
201603984. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1603984113
2. Putkinen, V., Tervaniemi, M., Saarikivi, K., & Huotilainen, M. (2015). Promises of formal and
informal musical activities in advancing neurocognitive development throughout childhood.
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1337(1), 153-162. DOI:10.1111/nyas.12656