Music helps babies learn to talk, according to a small study published on Monday in the United States which examined the behavior of infants participating in games of musical rhythms.
The researchers compared 20 children aged nine months learning to reproduce musical rhythms by tapping a small drum in a laboratory against 19 other infants of the same age playing with other toys like cars or cubes.
They found that children in the musical games group showed more activity in brain regions that are important to detect voice and music features, which is primordial for language learning.
“Our study is the first conducted with very young children suggesting that being exposed to musical rhythms at an early stage can also improve the ability to detect rhythms in language and also to anticipate,” says Christina Zhao, a researcher at the Institute for learning and brain sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington (northwest).
She is the lead author of the study published in the Reports of the American Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“This means that early musical stimulation can have wider effects on cognitive abilities,” she adds.
Infants and young children experience a complex environment in which the sounds, lights and sensations are constantly changing, notes Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS, and co-author of this work.
“To acquire the ability to speak, they must recognize the tones and rhythms and also anticipate,” says the scientist, noting that the ability of sound perception “is an important cognitive ability,” and that “the fact of the early improvement in life seems to have lasting effects on learning.”
The language, like music, has very strong rhythmic characteristics, the researchers point out. Thus, the rhythm of syllables helps to distinguish between sounds and understand what a person says. And that is the ability to identify differences in the sounds that helps babies learn to talk, they explain.
To test the effects of musical training, the 20 babies participated for one month to twelve sessions of fifteen minutes each in the lab with their parents, guiding their activities. Beat of infantile songs was played three times, as a waltz, under the direction of a researcher.
A week after the end of the experiment, all babies were subjected to a scan to determine the exact spots where their brain activity occurred as they listened to a series of musical sounds and words according to rhythms occasionally altered.
Children from the music group games have all had stronger brain responses, showing that they could better detect these rhythmic changes than infants in the control group.
The researchers focused their comments on two brain regions, the auditory and prefrontal cortex, key to attention and concentration.
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