Babies, language and the sounds of music

June 9, 2016 Providence Health Team

As with language, the potential to learn music is built into our very being. Now, a recent study suggests that when babies listen to music, it can improve their ability to learn language.

The University of Washington study showed that 9-month-old babies who participated in a series of play sessions with music improved their brain processing of both music and new speech sounds. This is the first study with young babies that suggests it’s the rhythmic patterns in music that help them better perceive and predict rhythmic patterns in speech. And it doesn’t stop there: the study’s results raise the possibility that music can enhance babies’ development of broader cognitive skills, such as detecting patterns in sensory experiences other than speech.

The perfect age

Researchers at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) selected 39 babies for the study. All were 9 months old, had non-musician parents, and came from homes where they heard only English and were regularly exposed to music.

“This is the age when infants’ neural pathways are developing. They’re just starting to become more aware of and involved in their surroundings, not just as listeners and observers, but also as participants,” says Christi Sperry, AuD, a Providence audiologist in Portland, Ore. “They’ve been listening since they were in utero. And now they’re able to understand language more and are learning to speak their own.”

Fun play dates

Researchers randomly split the babies into two groups for 12 15-minute sessions over four weeks. One group listened to music (the intervention group); the other group played without music (the control group). Sessions for both groups were sociable and involved coordinated movement, known to help babies learn. The babies were observed in groups of two or three with their mothers and a facilitator present.

  • The music group: Recordings of children’s music—slow to fast, vocal and instrumental—filled the space. The study used only triple-meter music (like a waltz) over the simpler duple-meter (like a march), because it’s harder for babies at this age to learn it. Researchers chose a rhythm that babies were still learning, because it would let them better see how well the babies processed it. Babies shook maracas, tapped their feet and hands, clapped, and bounced on their mothers’ laps to the beat of the music. “When you combine the tactile with the aural, you reinforce the pattern,” says Sperry.
  • The play group: The room greeted babies with blocks, toy cars and other non-musical playthings that kids at this age enjoy. Together they freely stacked, rolled and moved the toys around with no music other than the sounds of their own babbling and laughter, and their mothers’ voices.

The power of patterns

Music and language have always walked hand in hand. “Both have rhythmic patterns,” says Sperry. Timing and repetition play key roles in the sounds of music and words. The timing of syllables helps babies distinguish one speech sound from the next. This is how they understand what someone is saying as they learn the language.

At 9 months old, babies are poised to recognize patterns everywhere, and not just with their ears. “When you introduce a completely new rhythmic pattern to anybody, and especially to 9-month-olds, their brains are going to be looking for what’s novel—the elements of that pattern that differentiate it from other patterns they know,” says Sperry. “Perceiving and making use of patterns are part of learning. It’s training the brain to continuously take in new patterns and stimuli, and to make them meaningful.”

“Patterning,” Sperry goes on to explain, “is the brain being able to make use of the pattern coming in so it can predict what’s coming next and know how to use it in a meaningful way. This cognitive skill that babies are developing can be transferred to other patterns they already know, or to other, new patterns. For anything you’re learning, whether another language or difficult musical rhythm, your brain is getting used to those predictions. So if you learn another type of auditory pattern, your brain will more quickly adapt.”

Putting them to the test

Within a week after the last music and play sessions, parents brought their babies back to I-LABS. It was time to measure their brain responses, using something called magnetoencephalography (MEG). The machine looks like a hair dryer from the 1950s, except it’s huge. So is the job it does: it’s the only neuroimaging technique that measures both timing and spatial functioning in the brain. And the I-LABS MEG facility is the first one in the world that is set up to study the infant brain.

The babies sat in a special highchair under the MEG, their mothers right beside them. They listened to a series of waltz-like tones, and sometimes the flow of the triple meter was interrupted, like someone missed a beat.

They also listened to a foreign-speech syllable that kept repeating, except when another, similar-sounding one occasionally cut in. These disruptions were intentional, to create just a slight contrast, like a book lying on top of a patchwork quilt. How strongly the babies’ brains responded to the disruptions would tell researchers how well the babies could detect the pattern.

While the babies were taking in the musical and speech sounds, researchers focused on the areas of the brain that control attention and detect patterns: the temporal cortex (timing) and the prefrontal cortex (spatial awareness).

Here’s what the MEG said: The music-group babies showed stronger responses in those parts of the brain—to both the music and speech interruptions—than their play-group peers.

Room to learn

The researchers wondered: If music patterning could generalize to speech patterning, what else could do that? And what other perceptual skills could be strengthened by listening to music?

Sperry wonders, too. “There’s still so much about the brain that we don’t know. But we do know it’s incredibly plastic,” she says. “Whatever your age, the more you train your brain to learn something new, the more you carve the neural pathways that make it easier to keep learning.”

You can read the full text of the University of Washington study here. If you have questions about your baby’s development, talk to your pediatrician, or find a Providence pediatrician here.

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