Music to promote early language

Katy Mitchell. With thanks to Nicole Da Rocha for her support and advice.| View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Listening to learn

The early experiences of a child in the first years of life have an impact on brain development. Studies have been conducted to look at brain scans of children in healthy environments and those who have experienced significant neglect. The brain scans of a two year old with positive experiences looks different to that of a child who has been severely neglected, where areas of the brain are not developed and will remain that way through adult life (Navsaria, 2016).


Source: C.A.Nelson (University of Minnesota) in Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000). Shonkoff,J and Phillips, D. (Eds.) pg 188

There are sensitive periods for early brain development, with the first twelve months of life being a critical period for developing the sensory pathways, language and cognitive function. Studies in the 1980s showed that the rate at which the brain grows and develops in the first year of life is greater than at any other time after birth (Kretschmann et al.1986).

A baby's brain has trillions of neurons ready to be connected or wired in the brain (Begley, 1996). The neurons create more than 50 trillion synapses, or connections  and during the first month of a baby's life these will increase to over 1000 trillion (Begley, 1997).

Research has shown that music instruction appears to have a positive effect on brain development 'with accelerated development of central auditory pathways' and 'is associated with accelerated cortical maturation necessary for general auditory processes such as language, speech and social interaction' (Habibi et al. 2016:11).  Research shows strong connections between rhythm and pre-reading skills in young children (Woodruff Carr et al. 2014). Music can benefit all areas of development.

Music is a tool for learning language. It helps us to teach children new words in a fun and engaging way. Words can be repeated again and again in a song, in a way that would not happen in daily routines. In the 'Wheels on the Bus" song, the words 'round and round' are repeated four times in quick succession. If you sing the song again and again, the words have quickly been reinforced twelve times. This repetition is very natural in children's songs and yet does not happen as naturally in daily conversation. Music carries rhythm and intonation and this additional information helps to promote access to the sounds of speech. Actions accompanying the song, help to promote meaning.

The sense of rhythm developed through music is an important skill for promoting early literacy, whilst developing pitch promotes the emotional content for language as a child learns to read. This BabyBeats video explains how music can be promote literacy and how listening to music at an early age can impact reading. Moving to music and dance can help to develop gross motor skills and provide a create way to express feelings.

This information sheet explains the learning that takes place at six-monthly intervals from birth to 36 months, as babies and toddlers respond to music. 

This article explains how music can be used to promote many areas of early development (Parlakian & Lerner, 2010).

As a child gets older, there has been extensive research into the benefit of playing musical instruments, which enhance fine motor skills and promote small precise movements (Hyde et al, 2009). Playing a musical instrument has been shown to benefit many areas of development, equipping students with foundational skills for learning, promoting engagement and academic achievement in other subjects and developing other lifelong skills. Music Matters (Art Education Partnership, 2018) provides a summary of this research. 




Find pictures of brain scans of 2 year olds from this referene

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Habibi, A.,Damasio, A., Ilari, B.,Veiga, R.,Josji, A.,Leahy, R.,Haldar, J.,Varadarajan, D., Bhushan, C.,Damasio, H. (2018) 'Childhood Music Training Induces Change in Micro and Macroscopic Brain Structure: Results from a Longitudinal Study'. Cerebral Cortex, December 28 pp. 4336-4347.

Hyde, K., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A., Schlaug, G. (2009) 'The Effects of Musical Training on Structural Brain Development: A Longitudinal Study,' The Neurosciences and Music III: Disorders and Plasticity: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Volume 1169, Issue 1 pp.182–186.

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