Even babies benefit from music lessons

June, 2012

A six-month study comparing the effects of two types of infant music class shows that babies can be taught to become sensitive to musical pitch, and that musical activity can improve social and cognitive skills.

I’ve talked before about the benefits of music lessons for children — most recently, for example, how music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ. Now a new study extends the findings to infants.

In the study, 6-month-old babies were randomly assigned to six months of one of two types of weekly music class. The classes lasted an hour and involved either an active or passive approach.

In the active classes, parents and infants worked together to learn to play percussion instruments and sing lullabies and action songs. The classes emphasized musical expression, listening in order to play or sing at the right time, repetition, and developing parents’ awareness of their babies’ responses. There was also a CD that they were encouraged to play at home.

In the passive classes, parents and infants listened to CDs from the Baby Einstein series while playing and interacting at art, book, ball, block, and stacking cup play stations. Parents were encouraged to take home different CDs from the collection each week.

At the end of the program, those babies attending the active classes showed an earlier sensitive to pitch. Unlike infants from the passive classes, they preferred to listen to a piano piece played in key rather than one that included notes played out of key (you can hear the two versions at http://www.psychology.mcmaster.ca/ljt/stimuli.htm). Their brains also showed larger and/or earlier responses to musical tones.

On the cognitive side, babies from the active classes also 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. It is presumed that these social skills are due to the development of better social interaction between parent and child.

The classes were run at two centers — one in a lower socioeconomic area, and one in a middle-class area. The teachers of the classes were unaware of the nature of the experiment. Before the classes began, all the babies had shown similar communication and social development and none had previously participated in other baby music classes. There was no interaction between socioeconomic status and intervention, and the results from both were then analyzed together. There were 38 families (out of an initial 49 at the beginning) who were still attending regularly at the end of the program, and 34 of these (of whom 16 were from the lower SES centre) completed the testing.

The exciting question is of course what long-term effects this ‘head-start’ will have on cognitive and social development. I hope the researchers will follow this up.

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