All babies are born with innate musical ability. To babies, all sounds are actually music-like and they process it in their brain using some of the fundamental characteristics of music.
Music is made of 4 core elements:
- Pitch – how high and low the notes are
- Rhythm – how long and short the sounds are
- Dynamics – how loud or soft the sound is and how that changes
- Timbre – the source and quality of the sound
Music supports language development
Babies understand sound through its musical elements or characteristics. When we listen to music our brains are processing a huge amount of information, our ears are identifying the different elements to understand the tune and the rhythm. It is this understanding of melody and rhythm that underpins language acquisition and comprehension. A baby’s language development benefits from hearing the voice through song as this gives them more clues, it is easier to hear the nuances of every language sound through song because the rhythm is slower and the distance between sounds is longer.
Music affects emotional development
Other parts of our brain, including our emotional, perception and sensory networks are also extracting information from the sound, making us feel different emotions or shifting our mental state. Babies identify their primary carers from the auditory signature of their voices, research tells us that singing to your babies and toddlers is not a luxury, ‘extra-curricular’ activity but a fundamental need to create empathy and agency.
Music supports physical development
Our bodies respond to music by moving, clapping or tapping feet. As a response, our immune systems also kicks in and releases dopamine when we listen and move to music. Toddlers use the beat to teach their bodies how to move with control, intention and synchronicity – it is an instinctive response. They do not yet have the fine and gross motor control to emulate beat precisely, but they are trying through natural instinct.
Music supports cognitive function and learning generally
Developing the auditory processing system through listening and responding to music prepares the brain for listening and learning. Trying to predict patterns in sound as toddlers try to move with the beat is wiring the brain circuits for predicting patterns and sequences, which is the basis for maths and literacy at school. There is growing evidence of an intrinsic sense of beat through our neural circuits, and these circuits have to connect in order to hear the beat and predict the next beat.
Sound is food for the brain, music is a whole-brain workout
Sound is a cognitive nutrient. For the auditory processing networks in babies and toddlers brains, cognitive information like pitch, dynamics, rhythm and timbre are the nutrients to help them thrive. The neuro-musical research field started in its current form in the mid 1990s, when new technology allowed researchers to watch the human brain function in real-time. They found that music processing set off more activity in the brain than anything else they had seen up to that point. Music is a whole-brain workout!
Research shows the detrimental effects of disadvantage
It has long been recognised that children struggling with their learning also struggle to keep a steady beat. We know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to have had exposure to fewer words and songs. Studies have shown that music intervention in early years, which offers lots of practice of rhythmic and melodic awareness activities, can boost cognitive foundations, particularly the foundations for literacy, ready for school.
How we can harness the power of music in early years development
As practitioners and parents of early years children we need to understand this neural development process and the vital part that singing and beat keeping activities can play to help children develop the cognitive foundations to thrive at school. We need to be singing, clapping, dancing and keeping the beat with them every day. We also need to value non-verbal communication and facilitate musical play – think of any space as musical play space – then we can develop communication through music.
Boogie Mites Teenies Music programme has been developed for babies to 2-year-olds in the nursery setting. We have developed an online training course to equip practitioners with the knowledge, confidence and resources needed to ensure that they provide a rich and varied musical environment for the children in their care. We also encourage involving parents and home practice, to harness the power of music at this early stage daily repetition is key.
To find out more about our online practitioner training, click here.
You can download a free taster song for under 2’s here.
Dr Anita Collins
Boogie Mites follow the research of Dr Anita Collins (leading international researcher in brain development and music learning) who explores the findings of neuroscience laboratories that study the impact of music on the brain all over the world.
You can watch her TED talk here.
Find out more about her work: https://www.anitacollinsmusic.com/
We recommend her books The Lullaby Effect and The Music Advantage. The statements in this article about how music affects brain development are taken from her work.