Friday, October 12, 2012

Music and a Baby's Brain

  As I have mentioned in several of my updates, Q-ball loves music.  "Music" was one of the first signs she made, and she quickly started asking to listen to music.  We get all sorts of CDs from the library (rather archaic in these modern times, I know...).  Sometimes we have the music playing in the background, and sometimes we dance along.  I've also created a music box for her with several instruments (maracas, a tambourine, xylophone, a castanet, and bells) that we take out every few weeks.
Q-ball, actively engaged with music.
   We explore music because Q-ball likes it.  But, I know that I've always heard lots reports about parents playing music for babies, even fetuses, because of its benefits to a developing brain.  I was surprised to read in Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, then, that these benefits are largely based on studies that have been overblown by the media.  The basis for what is now commonly referred to as the "Mozart Effect" (i.e., that idea that listening to music enhances brain development or increases a person's IQ) started after a study in 1993 at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh demonstrated that students received higher tests scores after listening to Mozart.  
     While the media latched on to this point, the lead researcher tried to point out that the participants in the study were college students (so, not babies), the effects only lasted 10 to 15 minutes after listening to Mozart (so, not permanent brain changes), and the test only looked at spatial intelligence (so, just one tiny aspect of intelligence.)  More importantly, in 1999, Nature and Psychological Science officially renounced the findings from the original Mozart study!  Despite many attempts, other researchers were never able to repeat the original findings.  Obviously, no one told the many music and toy manufacturers that advertise with these findings today!
   But, just because music doesn't increase a baby's IQ, doesn't mean that there are not benefits.  And, it certainly doesn't mean that babies don't notice music.  While the research into this field is still rather new, studies have confirmed the following:
  • Humans are innately musical and, even as infants, can use music as a form of communication. (We are the only such species.) 
  • Infants listen carefully to music and can pick up even subtle changes.  Research has shown music alters a baby's heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
  • Brain responses to music are identical in adults and in infants, proving that even at this young age, the brain is able to process music.
  • All cultures seem to have motherese in which people speak to infants musical tones. (To read more about motherese, check out this post.)
  • Early introduction to music does affect the organization of a person's musical brain.  So, early exposure to music may increase the likelihood that a person may be more musically inclined later in life.
  • Studies have shown that music can be used as a reinforcement to encourage learning.  Premature newborns have been taught to strengthen sucking, leading to their eventual ability to self-feed.  Music is also positively used to "cue" various activities to help schedule a toddler or baby's day.
  • Music can enhance listening skills, language development, motor coordination, and cooperation.
   So, how can you provide these wonderful benefits for your child?  The benefits of music are most seen when children are actively involved.  While music played in the background can change create a certain mood in a room, it does not necessarily encourage active engagement by the child.  To play an active role, a child should be encouraged to dance, sing, or make music themselves.  Even small steps like taking the time to point out changes in a piece of music that is playing in the background increases a child's active engagement with music.  
    Despite the mixed results from research, everyone seems to agree that music is a great and innately human way to bond.  So, perhaps the best benefit from music is an addition opprotunity to bond with your child!

Fox, D.B. (2000).  Music and the baby's brain: Early experiences. Music Educators Journal, 87(2), 23-27.
Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards. Rodale: USA.
Hodges, D.A. (2000). Implications of music and brain research. Music Educators Journal, 87(2), 17-22.
Standley, J.M. (2001). The power of contingent music for infant learning. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 149, 65-71.

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