It has become a cultural norm that parents must boost their baby’s language development. Evidence of this is that the “nighttime story” practice is common in most families and parents are very aware that they must talk to their baby ever since he/she is born (or sometimes while the baby’s still in the womb!).
However, the news from science has not travelled so fast into the reach of families. Whilst the nighttime story is a great practice, and talking to your baby is crucially important not only for the language development but the social and emotional connection, there is one piece of information that is often missing.
That is, music. While the weekly baby and toddler music groups are a popular activity, imagine if your baby could only hear people talk during a 40-minute weekly session, and for the rest of the week, not only would anyone speak to them, but they would not hear any spoken language.
It’s easy to see that this would mean serious delays for the baby’s language development.
Yet this is exactly what is happening to the musical development of many babies, toddlers and small children.
The reason for this is obviously the common assumption that for babies and children, language development is crucial, while musical development is optional. The school system encourages this kind of thinking, focussing on “core skills” – the three Rs.
Yet the best way to develop all of the three Rs is – surprisingly but scientifically – early music learning.
Babies and small children who are fortunate enough to benefit from early music learning, and the brain boost that it gives, are statistically shown in later life – when the school years start – to excel in reading, writing and mathematics compared to the children who miss out on early music learning. And the instant benefits for babies include bigger vocabulary and more advanced communication skills.
Science shows that the best time to start early music learning is as soon as possible. Different ages require different methods – a baby or toddler cannot yet take instrument lessons, nor can most preschoolers (due to the motivation, practice and discipline that instrument lessons demand – unless you are lucky to find a great teacher suited to teach small children), but there are basic musical skills that even the smallest of children can master.
For instance, did you know that – as simple as it sounds – clapping to different rhythms is shown to increase the language development and school success of small children more than anything else? It’s remarkably simple but it works. (See, for instance, the study by Brodsky and Sulkin, 2011)
And for babies, who cannot yet clap, the benefits of music learning are indeed nothing short of remarkable. They gain better early communication skills and are even easier to soothe when they are upset! (See, for instance, this article in ScienceDaily)
And the simplest way to support your baby’s development – language development as well as your baby’s overall brain development – is to support your baby’s musical development. We can start this, very simply, by singing to our babies and having a musical environment at home which exposes the child to different types of music. I initially started creating the children’s songs, that became the foundation for Moosicology, so that my Son could listen to a wide range of different music concepts and thus acquire a large “musical vocabulary”.
The baby’s first years are a time of intense brain development, when the brain forms new connections between different neurons depending on what kind of stimuli it encounters in its environment. The world’s leading music educators, such as Edwin E. Gordon who invented the widely-used music aptitude test, comment that babies’ brains are missing out on their optimal development if they miss out on music – to the point where the lack of sufficient music stimuli can actually be called “music abuse”.
In his article that is provocatively called “Early Childhood Music Abuse: Misdeeds and Neglect”, Prof. Gordon writes: “With regard to language, most youngsters receive at least enough informal guidance in linguistic skills to benefit from formal instruction. Unfortunately, that is not the case with music. The majority of children who are ready to receive formal instruction in school music are bereft of appropriate musical readiness to learn.”
Several studies, such as CA Mallett’s “An examination of parent/caregiver attitudes toward music instruction, the nature of the home musical environment, and their relationship to the developmental music aptitude of preschool children” (2000) have shown that the musical environment that a small child has at home is the best predictor of how advanced their musical development is.
Babies and children do not learn music if they cannot access the learning of it. Musical talent is not something that is inborn in some of us and not in others. It’s something that is wired in the brains of every newborn, just like the potential for learning a language.
Just like babies learn language skills from good access to language, babies learn music skills from good access to music. And as music learning is shown to make a real difference like no other activity in the language development of babies, it is time that we become more aware that music is not something “optional” and “on the sidelines” but just as crucial for a small child’s full development as language learning.
So enrich your baby’s home music environment, sing to your baby and play them different types of music! (The nighttime song routine is also a great way to ensure that your child gets to hear at least some singing every day. Why not follow the nighttime story by a soothing song!)