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Natural Awakenings New Haven & Middlesex Counties

A Symphony of Skill-Building: How Music Spurs Childhood Development

Sep 29, 2023 ● By Sheila Julson
How Music Spurs Childhood Development

ORION PRODUCTION/Shutterstock.com

For adults, music has the power to instill feelings of joy, relaxation and calmness, or to motivate us when we are exercising or performing a task, but for children, there are added benefits. Whether listening to a live orchestra, engaging in rhythmic games, learning to play an instrument or singing in a choir, musical pursuits have been proven to help with early brain development and teach kids important life skills.


Building a Better Brain


Researchers at the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences discovered that play sessions with music helped 9-month-old babies learn to detect rhythmic patterns, an important skill for both music and speech. According to lead author Christina Zhao, “This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills.”


In a five-year study involving 6- and 7-year-olds, neuroscientists at the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, found that music instruction appeared to accelerate brain development in young kids, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills.


“Music learning, such as studying to play a musical instrument or singing in tune, are very complex activities for the brain. They use multiple senses but also require those senses to interact and exchange information in a highly synchronized way,” explains Dr. Anita Collins, founder of Bigger Better Brains and author of The Music Advantage: How Music Helps Your Child Develop, Learn, and Thrive. She asserts that complex musical activities are like full-body workouts for the brain, which sharpen a child’s ability to solve problems and think creatively and divergently. As these skills are mastered, they can be transferred to other types of brain activities.


Collins advises that singing to and with children at a young age can help them gain control of their voices, as well as their speech enunciation and processing, and to hear nuances in sounds. She recommends interacting with the world of sound while outdoors and adds, “Getting a young child to focus their ears onto a particular sound can help train auditory attention, which trains the attention network in general.”


Kids need to listen actively, rather than passively, most of the time, Collins notes. “Passive music listening is hearing music in a mall. Active music listening is focusing our auditory processing on a particular instrument, on the melody line over the bass line or mirroring the rhythmic ostinato of the drum part.” 


Silence also plays an important role in early development. “The biggest mistake is not thinking about a child’s auditory environment and always having the TV on or having a highly stimulating auditory environment all the time. Children need variety in their food, and sound is food for the brain. They need quiet times, unusual sounds, unexpected sounds and repetitive sounds,” says Collins.


Learning Life Skills

Joan Koenig, author of The Musical Child: Using the Power of Music to Raise Children Who Are Happy, Healthy, and Whole, says that engaging in a musical practice can help kids develop language awareness and social skills. Such positive results are possible even without expensive music classes or instruments. 


Simple call-and-response exercises can be effective in the brain development of babies and toddlers. “We are an orchestra within ourselves; we can create rhythm, melody and harmony,” Koenig explains. “A parent or caregiver can initiate a call-and-response game by singing a song, tapping a wooden spoon on pots and pans or singing nonsense words. Babies will imitate it. When the baby is involved in this game during the first year of life, they are experiencing a connection with the person that’s doing it. It is visceral proof that they are being listened to and understood long before the development of language. You’re giving them the building blocks for both music and language. It’s about repetition and engagement.”


Basic life skills can also be learned with the assistance of music. “A march-and-stop song game allows children to practice stopping something fun and waiting, which can carry over to stopping when we’re upset and waiting until we have a thoughtful response,” says Elise Pennington, chair of the early childhood program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, in Milwaukee. “Playing games like Ring Around the Rosie or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes can help with a number of areas. Enrolling in an organized music class where children are active participants and being challenged will help exercise a wider range of skills in a deeper way.”


“When children or adults make music together, they become part of the musical creation,” Koenig says. “When a young child feels this kind of visceral belonging, anxiety is low and empathy and confidence are high. These are the ideal conditions for all learning.” 


Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.