As an adult, you probably have preferences when it comes to listening to music while doing something that requires a lot of attention: studying for a test, for example, or reading a book. But what may be simple background noise to you might mean a whole lot more for your young child — particularly if they’re just beginning to pick up rudimentary language for reading and speaking.
Although some biologists argue that language is an innate skill, there have been studies done to show that listening to music can help children with their language development, all based around the idea that music closely mirrors the pitch, timbre, and tempo of everyday speech.
But the benefits don’t end with the infant years. Carrying a musical education into the formative years can go a long way toward helping develop reading comprehension skills, and even help children further recognize tricky spoken verbal cues.
It’s a moment all parents wait for eagerly: their child’s first word. Once an infant or toddler begins to speak, it’s common to breathe a sigh of relief and take comfort in the idea that the language is right there inside of them — they just need to learn how to express and comprehend it. Yet although reading books and constantly speaking to an infant is a typical parent’s teaching method, playing music also can help babies recognize the way sounds are put together.
A Frontiers in Psychology whitepaper discusses in depth how music is a speech all its own. “Speech is sound. Its acoustic attributes — pitch, rhythm, and timbre — can serve strictly musical purposes … Just as composers have made music out of speech, so too does every human voice. As adults, we learn to tone down the features of speech that do not contribute to meaning. In contrast, infants rely on a complete battery of musical information to learn speech: timbre, pitch, dynamic stress, and rhythm.”
The whitepaper builds upon the idea that babies can pick up on the language of music as a template of sorts when it comes to understanding speech: “Put another way, infants use the musical aspects of language as a scaffolding for the later development of semantic and syntactic aspects of language. Infants are not just listening for affective cues nor are they focused exclusively on meaning: they are listening for how their language is composed.”
Lastly, a research summary by ABC Music & Me points out that because music and language aren’t that far apart, a baby’s speech and reading development is greatly furthered if they can comprehend how music is put together first:
Where spoken language is comprised of a stream of connected phonemes, music is comprised of a series of discrete musical notes, or tones. Understanding a spoken sentence requires successfully auditory processing of the individual phonemes combined with the intonation communicated by pitch, and hearing music requires listening for the individual notes combined with their rhythmic values. Because of these fundamental similarities, the human brain processes music and language in some similar ways.
When an infant — and later a young child — applies the familiarity of melody to the way sentences are spoken aloud, there is a much stronger chance that they could begin to understand the language more quickly.
Using music as a language learning tool doesn’t have to stop once your child has aged out of the crib. Making music an early part of their lives is beneficial to helping them grasp the shifting language around them. An article at Reading Horizons quotes Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, as saying: “People’s hearing systems are fine-tuned by the experiences they’ve had with sound throughout their lives. Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We’ve found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion.”
Kraus goes on to say that a child who learns how to play a musical instrument may be able to “more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice,” which is always a skill worth learning, especially early in life. In fact, a child learning to play an instrument may actually have stronger reading comprehension skills than one who doesn’t. The ABC Music & Me research study also goes into great detail about the use of music education helping young children with their reading skills, noting that “researchers believe that music instruction impacts a student’s brain functioning in processing language, which in turn impacts reading subprocesses like phonemic awareness and vocabulary. These subprocesses ultimately impact a student’s ability to read with comprehension.”
The sound of music may help with learning the flow and sound of human speech, but learning how to create that music itself can help develop “verbal memory” that allows children to recognize familiar words more easily.
Whether you’re playing soft melodies for your infant or teaching your young child how to play an instrument, including music as a part of your child’s education could be an important part of encouraging literacy and comprehension. Since studies have shown that the areas of the brain responsible for understanding music and language are so closely connected, there are multiple benefits to getting children started early on a life filled with music. It may be just as important as the words they read and write.
Music Stereo image via Shutterstock.