The power of song to both soothe and stimulate babies is a universally known truth. Mothers instinctively respond to their baby’s cries by rocking them gently while singing sweet melodic songs, inducing a sense of calm and peace. As babies grow and begin to explore their world song is used to stimulate learning. Consider the classic learning song “Head, shoulders, knees and toes”, this is a fun, engaging way to learn the parts of our bodies which, otherwise, might be all together uninteresting.
Using music to promote emotional calm and enhance learning is far from novel, but how and why does it work? Over the past two decades neuroscientists have sought to understand underlying mechanisms and outcomes of music engagement in promoting infant cognitive, emotional, and social development.
In 2012, researchers from McMaster University asked if music exposure could positively impact brain cognition and development in babies during brief but critical window of time, from 6 – 12 months of age. During this time babies transition from being able to recognize all possible sounds to only focusing on the sounds they actively hear, i.e. they become culture-bound listeners. Scientists have dubbed this the “use it or lose it” hypothesis; if babies do not hear specific sounds during this time then they lose their ability to accurately perceive them by one year of age
This study compared the effects of two different types of music exposure – Active and Passive – with no musical interventions in babies starting at 6 months of age, at the opening of this critical window. In the Active group, babies actively engaged in music playing and listening with their parent. In the Passive group, babies engaged in normal everyday play while Baby Einstein™ CD’s played in the background. The main differences between these groups was that the active group reinforced learning through repetition, used positive social interaction to enhance learning, and emphasized music quality.
After six months the researchers tested their little subjects on their preference for Western tones, their ability to discriminate novel sounds, their emotional response to novel sounds, and their overall ability to communicate. In each parameter tested, the babies who had Active music exposure scored significantly higher than the other two groups. There was little difference between the Passive group and babies receiving no music interventions. Thus, this study concluded music enhances cognitive, emotional, and social development only when exposure is in the context of active learning and social interaction (Gerry, Unrau, & Trainor, 2012).
This need for social interaction in infant learning is echoed in research on language acquisition. Researchers have found that babies are only perceptive to foreign language sounds when they directly interact with another human ; babies exposed to foreign language through passive exposure such as watching a foreign speaker on tv (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003) or watching Baby Einstein™ CD’s (DeLoache et al., 2010) do not learn the foreign language sounds.
All caretakers can likely attest that infants are social learners; If imitation is truly the highest form of flattery, then infants surely are the greatest charmers. However, the absolute need for this interaction to improve cognitive outcomes from learning experiences was unknown. These studies highlight a currently overlooked yet critical component of learning that is absent from most educational baby products on the market – the need for human interaction during the process of learning.
DeLoache, J. S., Chiong, C., Sherman, K., Islam, N., Vanderborght, M., Troseth, G. L., . . . O’Doherty, K. (2010). Do babies learn from baby media? Psychological Science.
Gerry, D., Unrau, A., & Trainor, L. J. (2012). Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Developmental science, 15(3), 398-407.
Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101.