From the brain’s point of view, learning to talk and learning to play music aren’t so different. In 2013, research from the University of Edinburgh showed that adults learn foreign languages faster if they start by singing the language. Why? Because there are strong neural connections between memory and the parts of the brain that understand and process music.
So what does this mean for your baby? Exposing your baby to music and teaching the basics of how music works may help your baby learn language faster.
In fact, learning a language and learning the fundamentals of music are almost identical. From birth, typical babies quickly learn to tune into the voices of their parents—long before they understand any actual words. At this stage, conversation is little more than patterns of rhythms and sounds that convey emotional meaning.
Around three to six months of age, typical babies start experimenting with their voices to produce a wide variety of sounds, including shrieks, coos, squeals, yells, and other vocalizations. These random sounds quickly sort themselves into “babbling,” or non-speech that follows the cadence and patterns of speech. Consonant sounds soon emerge, and babies begin to experiment with repetition, rhythm, and complexity.
Language acquisition, or learning to speak, is natural for most babies—in other words, they pick up language simply through exposure. However, studies have shown that exposing your baby to music can speed up this process and help your baby master complex language concepts faster.
In a study of 9-month-old babies conducted at the University of Washington, researchers studied the effect of exposure to music on babies’ brains. Researchers exposed one group of babies to the waltz during social play. Another group was allowed to play without listening to any music.
After 12 sessions, the babies’ brain responses were measured. Scientists discovered that the babies who had been exposed to music had enhanced pattern recognition and could better predict rhythm patterns — both necessary skills to learning how to speak or pick up a new language. In their conclusion, the team of scientists noted that other studies have shown that musical training can help with language.
Interestingly, while it appears that simply listening to music can help, musical training is even more powerful, according to the researchers. Introducing your baby to musical concepts, whether singing or letting him pound on a drum or shake a tambourine, will develop the same areas of the brain that are needed to master a language.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019
- Studies show that exposure to music can help babies understand speech faster.
- Before they learn language, toddlers understand rhythm.
- Exposure to music and music instruction are both helpful.