Music may help babies learn language better, in part by helping them learn to detect important rhythms, researchers reported Monday.
The study adds another twist to efforts to decipher why music seems to tap into universal human instincts, and the debate over whether it can make babies smarter.
Nine-month-old babies taken through 12 music sessions lasting 15 minutes showed more brain activity than babies who went through play and enrichment sessions without music, the team at the University of Washington reported.
"Our study is the first in young babies to suggest that experiencing a rhythmic pattern in music can also improve the ability to detect and make predictions about rhythmic patterns in speech," said Christina Zhao, a researcher who led the study.
The babies were analyzed using a type of brain scan called magnetoencephalography. It's a real-time brain scan, and after the 12 training session they got a little test aimed at babies. The researchers played music but missed a beat on occasion, and played them a pattern of nonsense words but occasionally violated the pattern.
The babies who had been through the music sessions recognized the mistakes more consistently than the babies who had not been given the music enrichment, the team reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills," Zhao said.
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"Babies experience patterns and they learn to be master pattern detectors," said Patricia Kuhl, who heads the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.
They trained the babies using waltz rhythms, with songs like "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
"The waltz rhythm is hard to learn," Kuhl said. Its ¾ tempo isn't natural, and doesn't resemble human speech.
Nine months is a good age to try this out, added Kuhl, who oversaw the research.
"It the time when infants go from being universal perceivers of all the languages, all the sounds in all the languages, to being experts in their own language," she said.
Part of that is learning the patterns of speech. "Figuring out what is going to happen next … helps you to determine the future," Kuhl said.
"We think that's why we saw the generalization of the effect from music to speech."
The parents or caregivers interacted with the babies, bouncing them to the beat, and that seemed important. But it wasn't just the physical coordination, because the babies who didn't get the musical help did play with toys in ways that required coordination.
"In both the music and control groups, we gave babies experiences that were social, required their active involvement and included body movements — these are all characteristics that we know help people learn," said Zhao. "The key difference between the play groups was whether the babies were moving to learn a musical rhythm."
Kuhl believes strongly that music can help children learn.
"Schools across our nation are decreasing music experiences for our children, saying they are too expensive," she said. "Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills that enhance children's abilities to detect, expect and react quickly to patterns in the world, which is highly relevant in today's complex world."