Music is a universal experience. No matter what age or what culture, people use music to relate to one another, regulate emotions and form their identities. While it can’t be contested that music plays an important role in humans’ lives, research is also beginning to show us the critical role it plays in children’s language development. In fact, music has been called a language all its own — and one that kids can master before their native language takes shape.
“I work with children at a very young age, and often during our first experiences they are distracted, non-verbal and interact with the music in a limited fashion,” says Michelle Marti, the owner of ShooBeeLoo Music and Movement, a children’s music program in Indianapolis. “I see many of these children develop exponentially in the space of a few months, becoming more focused, following directions, vocalizing parts of songs (language) and developing a sense of beat and rhythm (math).”
Neuroscientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California are diving into why exactly this is. According to their research, which has been underway since 2012, music instruction speeds up the maturation of auditory pathways in the brain, which can, in turn, speed up the development of language, reading and other skills. This is backed up by the research of Christina Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, who says that a child’s exposure to musical patterns can improve their ability to detect and predict speech patterns.
In other words, the parts of the brain that process music and language are closely connected.
As parents, we all want to give our children a head start on learning, and music just might be a fun and easy way to do that. And the good news is, you don’t have to be able to carry a tune yourself. Exposing your child to music can be as simple as turning on your favorite playlist at dinnertime or as involved as enrolling in an early-childhood music class, like Kindermusik or ShooBeeLoo Music and Movement. However, there are also a number of small, intentional things you can do at home no matter your musical skill level to increase your child’s music competence and feed their developing brain.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
If your children ever want to hear the same song over and over and over again, don’t fret — they’re not doing it to annoy you. Children thrive on repetition because it helps them develop confidence.
“I repeat songs multiple times per session,” Marti says about the music classes she offers. “I leave out words in order to encourage vocalization, I use visual references and evenly metered rhymes.”
At home, repeating the same song over the course of a day or even several weeks can encourage language development, but so can playing songs that have repetitive phrases or sounds. Nursery rhymes and children’s songs are particularly good for this, but some of your favorite music can be, too.
Experiment With Instruments
While listening to music at home, allow your children to explore its rhythmic patterns by laying out some simple instruments, like drums or shakers, for them to play with. If you don’t have instruments, create your own. Turn a pot and a wooden spoon into a drum and put beans into a plastic container as a rattle. Get curious with your child about the quality of sound those instruments make.
Say Their Name
Children become more engaged with music that is personal. Try incorporating their name or names of family, friends or pets into songs you already know. For example, instead of singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” sing “Katie Has a Little Dog.” You can also make up songs about everyday experiences, such as washing dishes or driving in the car, by co-opting familiar tunes or creating your own.
Mix It Up
“Along with children’s music, play different genres of new and old music in the house and car — classical, jazz, world music, pop, reggae, etcetera — in addition to the music you would normally listen to,” Marti says. The diversity of genres will expose your child to a variety of meters and tonalities, which will not only help them appreciate a wider breadth of music in the long run but will improve their sensory skills by creating new neural pathways.
Music time should be joyful, and there are so many ways to make music a fun and enriching experience in your home. Have family dance parties to explore musical rhythms. Make up hand motions to your favorite songs to improve vocabulary. Play around with silly sounds to explore the range of the human voice. “If a parent is enthusiastic about activities like dancing, singing, chanting, clapping, counting and bouncing, the child will be, as well,” Marti says.
Seize opportunities that arise in your everyday life to play and have fun with music, and you’ll be feeding your child’s developing brain with seemingly little effort involved.