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A Little Goes a Long Way: How Musical Play Can Shape Brain Development

Research has shown that intensive music training changes the structure and function of the brain and that music training is associated with additional cognitive benefits. Results like these have made many caregivers think that music training is a good way to support cognitive development of their child. However, some children do not enjoy music lessons and most people do not become musicians. Instead, music experience typically consists of leisurely activities such as guided musical play at kindergarten or music classes and choir at elementary school, and singing and dancing together with friends and family members. What does the science say on this? Can any kind of musical activity produce benefits and have an effect on the developing brain? 

All of us are born with the capabilities needed to perceive and enjoy music. Music starts influencing the function of our brains even before birth, and during the first year of life a wealth of information is learned about culture-specific musical features, accompanied by the development of corresponding brain regions involved in processing sound. Music is instinctively used by primary caregivers as part of interaction with an infant: to excite and engage during play, and to soothe at night time. 

Music is in a way also part of native language learning. How? What scientists call infant-directed speech and the rest of us call motherese mimics singing in its exaggeration of prosody. This type of talk has been found to be more engaging to infants than regular speech and to facilitate language learning by making the spaces between words more discernible (1.) Therefore, babbling and cooing may feel silly, but it is the best thing for developing your child’s speech skills.

Dancing with infants is also a common way of including music into the daily life of a child. In an interesting study, researchers found that 14-month-old infants who were bounced to a musical rhythm in synchrony (following the beat exactly) with an experimenter exhibited more altruistic behavior towards the experimenter than the infants who were bounced out of synchrony to the music (2.) You may be thinking, how does one measure altruism in 14-month-old infants? Different kinds of clever experimental settings have been devised to investigate helping behavior in very small children. For example, in one setting used in the study, the experimenter would pick up balls with tongs and move them into a bucket with the infant in the same room. The experimenter would then drop a ball or show by gestures that the ball was out of reach. The experimenter would look at the ball and the infant, who was close to the ball. The infants who were bounced in synchrony more often helped by picking up the ball that was out of reach and giving it to the experimenter!

All in all, musical activities seem to be a part of learning language and social skills. Very few studies have however been conducted to investigate the effects of informal musical activities on brain plasticity. In one recent study (3), scientists followed the brain development of children who attended a music playschool every week from age 2 to 6. The results of the study showed that brain responses (to auditory and musical stimuli such as discriminating chords and pitches) grew in children who remained in playschool until age 6, in comparison to those who ceased taking part in the playschool after two years, at age 4. The music lessons at the playschool consisted of singing and playing with percussive instruments, and were far more leisurely than typical instrument lessons. Therefore, music training need not be very formal to have an effect on brain development. 

Another study (4) points towards the cognitive effects of musical play. In the study, 4-6 year olds were assigned to play either a music or visual arts-related computerized training game. The programs were matched in learning goals, graphics and design -- the only difference between them was the content of the training. The music game taught children to discern musical characteristics such as pitch and rhythm, and the visual art game taught the children to discern visual characteristics such as shapes, dimension, and perspective. Children trained with the game for 1 hour, twice a day, 5 days a week. After just 4 weeks of training, the music group exhibited better performance on a test for verbal intelligence as well as changes in functional brain plasticity during a task requiring control over attention. 

In the two former studies, musical activities were leisurely, but organized. Is there any research on the musical activities that individuals undertake at home? Can these have an effect on the brain?

In one study (5) published in 2013, researchers found that mere singing to a child at home enhanced development of brain responses associated with sound processing as well as attention. In the study, the researchers investigated distractibility and neural sound discrimination in 2-3 year olds. They also mapped out the informal musical activities that the families undertook at home, such as how much caregivers sang to the children and how much the children engaged in musical play. Greater amounts of musical activities were connected to enhanced brain responses relating to processing of musical features such as pitch and rhythm. In addition, a greater frequency of singing to the child was connected to smaller brain indices of distractibility, i.e. better control over attention. The researchers speculate that it may not have been the music per se behind the plastic changes concerning attention but rather the engagement in a meaningful activity with the caregiver. In any case, the results point towards the power of the home environment as a place for development of musical as well as cognitive skills. 

In summary, investigation on the effects of music training has for long focused on explicit, formal, long-lasting music training. Accumulating research is beginning to show that one need not take part in formal music lessons to experience brain changes and enjoy possible benefits of training in other areas in life. It seems that musical activity in all forms, and as a natural part of our lives, can be associated with a multitude of developmental benefits. Future research is needed to explore the broad scope of music learning activities and its effects on the brain and cognition throughout life.

Written by Ketki Karanam


  1. Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. Nature reviews neuroscience, 5(11), 831-843.
  2. Trainor, L. J., & Cirelli, L. (2015). Rhythm and interpersonal synchrony in early social development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337(1), 45-52.
  3. 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.
  4. Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E. G., Cepeda, N. J., & Chau, T. (2011). Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function. Psychological science, 22(11), 1425-1433.
  5. Putkinen, V., Tervaniemi, M., & Huotilainen, M. (2013). Informal musical activities are linked to auditory discrimination and attention in 2–3‐year‐old children: an event‐related potential study. European Journal of Neuroscience,37(4), 654-661.