Musical activities (e.g., listening, singing, dancing, playing an instrument) are often central to early childhood learning experiences. Young children who engage in music and other types of musical activities during play can promote growth and the development of important cognitive, social, emotional and behavioral skills, which can be beneficial throughout their lives. For example, mothers who sing lullabies while they rock their babies to help soothe and calm them support their early language development, promote attachment and teach children how to self-regulate — the ability to manage one’s own emotional and physical states — and to self-soothe.
Music is an interactive, social and creative experience that is often shared with others through singing, dancing and playing musical instruments together. Similar to other learning experiences in early childhood, our early experiences with music can teach us important skills that may be used throughout our lives. Studies suggest that early musical training — for example, taking music lessons or learning to play a musical instrument — may strengthen brain regions such as those that influence language, auditory processing, self-awareness and executive functions — including planning, organizing and managing time and space — and can change how the brain interprets and integrates a wide range of sensory information.
Instrument playing can encourage young children to share and take turns with others and can promote the development of positive peer interactions. “Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time,” said Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D., a director and associate professor at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.
Dancing to music can help promote the development of gross motor skills such as balance, coordination and body awareness. Studies have shown that infant and toddler development is promoted through the active participation in music classes with parents even before they are able to walk. One study found that infants who actively participated in interactive music classes with their parents showed greater development of pre-linguistic communication (e.g., gestures) and social behavior compared to infants who were assigned to the passive music experience. These children smiled more, communicated better and showed earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.
Studies have found considerable evidence in support of music therapy’s benefits among premature infants who were exposed to music and sung lullabies while in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), including reductions in the pervasiveness and severity of problems, improvements in sleep, weight gain and recovery from painful procedures. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found evidence for early brain plasticity in the auditory cortex in premature infants who listened to audio recordings of their mother’s voice and heartbeat.
Compared to infants who were routinely exposed to hospital environmental noise, infants who were exposed to maternal sounds had significantly larger auditory cortices and plasticity, particularly in areas responsible for hearing sounds and language development.
Another study conducted by Joanne Loewy, D.A., a director of The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center and associate professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and her colleagues investigated the impact of music on the physiological (e.g., heart and respiratory rates) and developmental (e.g., sleep, feeding behavior and weight gain) development of 272 premature infants diagnosed with respiratory distress syndrome, clinical sepsis or small for gestational age (SGA). As part of the study, the infants received these three interventions per week within a two-week period for a period of two years:
Loewy and her colleagues suggested that incorporating musical elements catered to the infants’ vital signs enhanced their bodies’ ability to regulate, which resulted in changes in their heart rate, sucking behaviors, caloric intake and sleep patterns. In addition, parents who sang lullabies to their newborns experienced less stress and enhanced bonding with their newborns.
Young children benefit immensely from the early exposure to music and other musical activities. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego incorporates music activities as part of its comprehensive behavioral health treatment services for adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. For more information about the programs offered at our Rancho San Diego facility, please contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance.
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at email@example.com.