Music Improves Baby Brain Responses to Music and Speech

I-LABSPublication, Research

Children playing with musical toys

New I-LABS findings reveal that a musical intervention helped babies learn to detect rhythmic patterns, a skill important for both music and speech.

Children playing with musical toys
Photo: iStock, oksun70

The study, published the week of April 25 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that a series of play sessions with music improved 9-month-old babies’ brain processing of both music and new speech sounds.

“Our study is the first in young babies to suggest that experiencing a rhythmic pattern in music can also improve the ability to detect and make predictions about rhythmic patterns in speech,” said 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,” Zhao said.

With I-LABS co-director Patricia Kuhl, also co-author of the study, Zhao conducted a randomized controlled trial investigating the effects of a music intervention on infants. The babies in the study participated in 12 play sessions at I-LABS over the course of a month.

Babies assigned to the music group experienced a particular musical rhythm—triple meter, like a waltz—during their play sessions. Babies in the control group played but without music.

Watch a short video demo of what a music session looked like:

The study was conducted with the I-LABS MEG machine, which allowed the I-LABS researchers to examine the location and timing of the babies’ brain responses to sounds.

The MEG revealed that the music experience sharpened brain responses to music and speech in both the auditory cortex and prefrontal cortex, which manages cognitive skills such as controlling attention and detecting patterns.

“Schools across our nation are decreasing music experiences for our children, saying they are too expensive,” Kuhl said. “This research reminds us that the effects of engaging in music go beyond music itself. Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills that enhance children’s abilities to detect, expect and react quickly to patterns in the world, which is highly relevant in today’s complex world.”

Read the university news release »
Read the research paper »

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