Music and Child Development

The Science News of 8/14/10 devoted its entire issue to the importance of music to the developing infant. What follows is a summary of that information. For pdfs of the August issue and related audio files visit

Birth of The Beat by Bruce Bower

Each line of baby songs everywhere last about four seconds, each stanza lasting about 20 seconds. Psycho-biologist Colwyn Trevarthen of the University of Edinburgh has concluded that “babies are born with a musical readiness that includes a basic sense of timing and rhythm”. Within two days after birth, babies look surprised when the “downbeat” of a sound sequence is missing and enter the world crying in melodic patterns heard in the womb during their mother’s conversations. Within weeks of birth a “musical story telling” occurs between mother and child of coordinated gestures, expressions and give and take of sounds. This story telling prepares the baby to learn the rhythm and format of their native language, flexibility and creativity. An analysis of the communication between mothers and babies found three features of communicative musicality: pulse, quality and narrative. Pulse is the timed series of sounds and words during interactions. Quality contains emotional signals by voice and gesture. Narrative is the phrasing and pitch changes between mother and child. When mothers are unstable with borderline personalities and interact with their infants, no rhythmic flow emerges, almost as though the baby wasn’t there. Babies then withdraw, often trying to reconnect with their mothers through a variety of sounds and pitch changes but with hesitancy. Disrupted musical communication between mothers and babies is a predictor of social difficulties in preschool.

More Than a Feeling by Susan Gaidos

Music affects human emotion in a powerful way, stimulating brain regions all at once, including areas for emotion, memory, motor control, timing and language. Music lights up more areas of the brain than any other stimulus known, particularly the limbic system. Music lights this up in the same way that eating chocolate or having sex does. Emotions such as joy, sorrow, longing and wonder are difficult to evoke, so that music is used to examine these areas. Once this is understood, new therapies can be developed. Music may have the same effects on the brain that survival-related activities do, activating neural systems of reward and emotion similar to food, sex and drugs. Collective studies suggest that music has the capacity to both turn on and tone down the brain’s activity. Music’s power is particularly evident in those with autism, who can identify emotion in music in the same way as the non-disabled, music acting as a kind of doorway to the emotional recognition system. Music forges social bonds and fosters cooperative behavior. It stimulates mirror neurons, reflecting others’ emotions and intentions as though they were one’s own. Current theories tie together the mirror neuron system and the limbic system to explain the effect that music has on humans. Music offers a “social glue” that helps us to communicate and cooperate, establishing a sense of unity, belonging and trust among individuals.

Music of the Hemispheres by Rachel Ehrenberg

Playing music on an instrument appears to connect music with language, some finding remedies to impairments such as dyslexia. Playing an instrument improves verbal and nonverbal skills, fine-tuning the ability to extract a signal from noise, grammar skills, verbal comprehension, and distinguishing a question from a command. Musical training changes the brain in lasting ways. Playing an instrument, especially in a group, involves paying attention, coordinating movement, and interpreting movement and feedback to ears, fingers, and sometimes lips. It improves executive functioning, being able to control one’s body and mind. Even minimum exposure to musical training in 6 year olds showed improved listening and movement, and improved testing of finger movement, melodies and rhythms. In addition there is significant evidence that musical training has benefits for those with language impairments, including dyslexia. Both music and language appear to share the same structures, with common rules for building sentences and compositions. Musically trained brains are better at hearing errors in sentence structure, while those with language impairment have difficulty in understanding musical rules and sequences. Playing music changes the brain from the top down, from memory and consciousness to the ancient “lizard brain” where primal emotions reside. This “top-down tuning” can help devote more neurons to meaning that just hearing, Reviews suggesting that musical skills give children a learning benefit. In August’s Nature Neuroscience, it said, “Music has the power to transform our nervous system in substantial, enormous, unambiguous ways.”