Recent advances in neuroscience have allowed us to delve deeper into understanding a phenomenon that has been observed across cultures for as long as recorded history lets us see. This phenomenon is the profound effect music has on babies, from lullabies soothing them to sleep to loud music sending them screaming.
We have all heard the metaphor that children’s brains are sponges ready to soak up all the information from the world around them. While this metaphor works in describing a child’s seemingly endless thirst for learning, a different comparison would be that a child’s brain is like the foundation of a skyscraper. The foundation is what gets built first, and what needs the most planning and attention; a neglected foundation might not be able to support much, whereas one constructed with the right materials and correct structure could go on to support buildings of unimaginable height. This metaphor might seem a little cold and industrial, but it shows that everything that we achieve in our lives is built on how our brains develop as infants. So what is the right way to help the construction of these foundations? While we don’t yet have a definite formula for providing the world with future geniuses and prodigies, music is one important element that can be used to enhance a child’s developing potential and prepare their brains to take full advantage of a lifetime of learning.
Classical music and spatial reasoning
Researchers in the early 90s showed that listening to classical music increases spatial reasoning and problem-solving in both adults and children. The simple act of listening to music itself doesn’t make people smarter, however, it does help to prepare the brain for learning by building up a framework of neural pathways that can be built upon and strengthened (remember the skyscraper foundation metaphor). Classical music has a complex structure that stimulates neural pathways in our brains similar to those used for puzzle and problem-solving. In listening to this music while the brain is in its early developmental stages it is possible to strengthen and reinforce those pathways.
Parents who aren’t fans of classical music don’t need to worry as this isn’t the only form of music that is beneficial; think about how lullabies have been used for countless generations to gently rock a baby to sleep. While classical music does have the added benefit of strengthening spatial awareness, the research shows that babies and children respond positively to any soft melodic music, and, being in a positive mood or state of mind helps people of any age learn. Children also love to dance and express themselves so music with a happy and upbeat melody is great for gaining their interest. Fans of loud and harsh music may have to wait a little while before sharing their music loves with their children, however, as loud music can cause stress to infants and even potentially damage their sensitive ears.
Active music interaction provides the most benefits
Actively engaging infants with music by letting them dance, create, or replicate their own, further increases the positive effects music can have on a child. There are, however, also times when passive music interaction is more beneficial to both the child and the family surrounding them. Baby headphones can be a great way to have music playing for children while they are in the car or in a pram or stroller. Studies have also shown that newborns can learn while they are asleep so a good set of wireless, or sleep safe baby headphones can be put to use for when children are sleeping (not to mention the soothing power of music can be great for putting children to sleep in the first place). Active learning can also include interactive digital learning applications that make use of headphones and allow children to positively interact and create their own music which works well to provide breaks from loud, free expression.
Communication and language development
Routine and repetition are both tools which can be used to help learning thrive, and the engaging nature of the music makes it an extremely effective way to add a routine to a child’s day. Songs can be used to indicate time to go to bed, time to brush teeth, time to clean up, etc. and children actively participating in these songs are learning to develop their speech, vocabulary, motor skills, and communication skills. The repetition and routine also condition a child with the discipline and time management skills vital for learning later in life. The reason that music is so effective compared to simply giving commands or showing a child an action is because music captures a child’s attention and works the same pathways in their brain, preparing them for learning.
Social, motor, and memory skills
In addition to having songs represent particular activities and routines, free dance is an excellent way to get children up and moving. babies can learn and recognize melodies from even before they are born and moving to a rhythm, replicating a melody, helps the child’s mind fuse with their bodies. This fusion is what improves motor functions and goes so far as to help improve fine motor skills needed for things like writing and manipulating the world around them.
Children interacting with parents, teachers, and even other children in singing and dancing activities get a head start on developing social skills by strengthening those patterns for interactions in the brain. Increased memory capacity is another side bonus from all this music interaction, as the neural pathways associated with memory recall get a workout from the various activities surrounding music exposure.
Children with learning disabilities
The learning power of music also extends to children with learning disabilities such as autism and dyslexia and children with these disabilities can greatly benefit from listening to music. Music therapy can help autistic children communicate, break out of loops, and to develop strong social bonds. Dyslexia in children can also be helped with music as research has shown that music can strengthen those parts of the brain needed for effective communication and comprehension.
Adults also benefit from music
The benefits of music don’t stop or taper off as a child grows up, adults also greatly benefit from music. Stress reducing endorphin release from singing (especially in a group or choir), increased spatial awareness and problem solving, increased creativity skills, and social network building and communication skills, are among the benefits that we can get from music throughout our whole lives. While adults who have not had strong musical interactions or been exposed to music from a young age can still benefit, the required neural pathways need to be created or strengthened which takes time and effort. As a result, an adult may tend to neglect the route of musical learning and thus not gain from any of its broad range of benefits. In order to give children an advantage for later in life exposure to music from a young age will infuse them with these habits and tendencies toward music. This will make it easier to continue to develop musical learning throughout their lives.
Effects of music on unborn babies
Fetuses start to learn not long after the biological function of hearing develops meaning that their brains start changing in response to what they hear from the outside world while they are still in the womb. Studies have shown that exposing infants to music even at this stage creates lasting learning effects on unborn brains. There is even a range of baby headphones that are available for use on the mother’s belly to help get the music directly to the child, allowing control of what music is being played. Passively playing music to unborn babies coupled with activities such as singing to them not only helps to increase the child’s potential for learning speech patterns but also gets the child used to the mothers and close relatives voices.
Recognizing Problems And Using Baby Headphones
A simple fact of life is that our hearing is the most sensitive when we are young and slowly but steadily continues to deteriorate as we get older. Once damaged, natural hearing is not easy to repair and as children’s hearing is much more sensitive than adult’s, is important to take care of their ears. Headphones are a great tool to get children engaged with music, however, it is important to control the volume to make sure it can never go to dangerously loud levels. Most good quality baby headphones will include volume limiters in order to prevent this, headphones for adult use should not be used.
There will, of course, be the occasion where loud music or noises will be encountered by children and it is easy to overlook the importance of protecting their hearing as we, as adults, don’t have the same hearing sensitivity. A good set of baby earmuffs can go a long way in protecting a child from potentially damaging loud noises and can also get them to relax and sleep in a loud, startling, and stressful environment.
What can parents do?
So what can a parent do to ensure their child gets the most of the many benefits that music can bring? One of the simplest things is singing. This can start when the child is still in the womb and can continue as the child grows. Regardless of how well a parent can sing, the child will actively be engaged.
Passively playing music to children from when they are in the womb is also a great way to start to get their brains developing in positive ways. Special headphones can be used on the mother’s pregnant belly, and then afterward baby headphones with volume control can be used to both actively engage children, and also provide benefits while they are resting. Newborns learn while they are sleeping so playing music as they sleep, either at night or in the car or pram, continues to activate crucial pathways in their brains needed for learning development.
Music has a powerful effect on our emotions, just think about getting chills from that particular moving orchestral piece, or the emotions that are evoked by your favorite songs. This is also true for children and soft melodic music can help to calm, pacify, or even put children to sleep. Happy, actively engaging music can get them engaged in routines, and put their minds in a better state that is conducive to learning.
Getting children actively engaged in music making by letting them dance, interact with digital devices, or good old-fashioned playing on instruments goes to further increase learning potential by helping to develop the neural pathways that are needed for motor, social, language, communication, memory skills.
Some of these processes have been known and used for centuries, however, recent advances in neuroscience have given us a greater insight into what really goes on in the developing brains of children, and how integrating music into a child’s life can provide a broad range of benefits. Aside from exposing babies to loud music that could put them in a stressed state, or even damage their sensitive hearing, there are no negative effects in exposing children to music even when they are still in the womb and by using the correct baby headphones and baby earmuffs, care can be taken to avoid to avoid any potentially damaging or stressful situation. While just listening to music won’t increase a child’s IQ, it will definitely help to provide their brains with a strong foundation to develop in a way that will set them up to reap the vast benefits from music interaction for the duration for their lives.