A study done by scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) found that a series of play sessions with music improved 9-month-old babies’ brain processing of both music and new speech sounds.
The researchers designed a randomised-controlled experiment to see if teaching babies a musical rhythm would help the babies with speech rhythms.
39 babies attended 12 15-minute play sessions in the lab with their parents. In groups of about two or three, the babies sat with their parents, who guided them through the activities.
20 babies were assigned to the music group, recordings of children’s music played while an experimenter led the babies and their parents through tapping out the beats in time with the music, while 19 babies in the control group attended play sessions that did not involve music.
Within a week after the play sessions ended, the families came back to the lab so the babies’ brain responses could be measured. The researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to see the precise location and timing of brain activity.
While sitting in the brain scanner, the babies listened to a series of music and speech sounds, each played out in a rhythm that was occasionally disrupted. The babies’ brains would show a particular response to indicate they could detect the disruption.
The researchers focused their analyses on two brain regions, the auditory cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which is important for cognitive skills such as controlling attention and detecting patterns.
Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to the disruption in both music and speech rhythm in both the auditory and the prefrontal cortex, compared with babies in the control group.
The researchers found that participation in the play sessions with music improved the infants’ ability to detect patterns in sounds.
According to the study’s lead author Christina Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS: “This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.