When should you start your child on music lessons? New research suggests the answer is somewhere around age six.
Six months, that is.
In two recently published papers, psychologists Laurel Trainor and David Gerry of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind report music training can foster babies’ emotional development and communication skills.
“The infant brain might be particularly plastic with respect to musical experience,” the researchers write in the journal Developmental Science. “When parents are actively involved and materials appropriate for infants are utilized, musical training can profitably begin early in infancy.”
The researchers describe a six-month experiment featuring 34 infants and their parents. The babies’ average age at the time of the first session was six and one-half months; the last week of classes occurred around their first birthday.
Twenty of the infants and their parents participated in weekly, hour-long interactive music classes, which utilized the well-known Suzuki method.
“Two teachers worked with the parents and infants to build a repertoire of lullabies, action songs and nursery rhymes,” the researchers write. “Parents were encouraged to use the curriculum CD at home and to repeat the songs and rhymes daily.”
The other 14 infants and their parents enrolled in passive music classes, where they listened to “a rotating series of recordings from the popular Baby Einstein series” while playing together with balls, blocks or books.
After six months, those who took part in the active music lessons demonstrated a preference for tonal over atonal music—a pattern not found in the passive group. (Struggling record companies: These passives might grow into a potential audience for that backlog of Arnold Schoenberg CDs!) In addition, the researchers found “significantly larger and/or earlier responses” to piano tones in the brains of the babies who took active lessons.
But the benefits of this training went far beyond early indications of music appreciation.
“After participation in active music classes, infants showed much lower levels of distress when confronted with novel stimuli than after participation in passive music classes,” the researchers report. All the babies smiled and laughed less as they aged during the experiment, but the fall-off was greater among the passive listeners.
Communication skills were also positively affected. “Use of gestures increased greatly between six and 12 months of age,” the researchers note, “but increased more so for those in the active compared to the passive music classes.”
Trainor and her colleagues do not view these developments as isolated. “Positive social interactions between infants and parents likely lead to better communication and earlier acquisition of communicative gestures, which in turn lead to more positive social interactions,” they write.
So never hesitate to teach your little one a lullaby. Even at a very young age, making music together is great way for parents to bond with their budding baritone or Beyoncé.