Babies who learned to keep waltz time during play sessions showed stronger brain responses to timing mistakes in both music and speech, suggesting that music training could help them learn to talk.
Music educators cheered after the long-overdue rewrite of the federal education law, which passed last year, specified that music and art are part of a “well-rounded education” – not luxuries to be ditched whenever budgets get tight.
While music has value all by itself, researchers have long noticed that musicians also tend to be better at learning languages and show other enhanced reading and math abilities.
Much of that research hasn’t determined whether learning to play an instrument should get the credit or if something else explains the association of music instruction and other skills.
But a new study from the University of Washington shows that rhythm is an important bridge between music and speech as early as nine months of age.
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Researchers randomly placed babies into two groups of about 20 each, and each group played at the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences lab with their parents for a dozen 15-minute sessions over a month.
In one group, researchers played recordings of songs with a waltz rhythm and showed the parents how to help their babies tap out that 1-2-3 beat in time with the music on toy drums, maracas or with their feet.
In the other group, children played with typical toys and no music.
The babies in the music group were better able to detect random mistakes in that rhythm when they heard it within two weeks of the last session while sitting in a brain scanner.
They also showed a stronger brain response to disruptions in the rhythm of invented, two-syllable words. For example, researchers would sometimes alter the timing of syllables by slightly shortening the middle consonant of a word like bibbi to make it bibi — a glitch the babies with music training were more likely to notice.
In other words, music training not only improved the babies’ ability to notice when a musical rhythm skipped a beat, it also improved their ability to notice when the rhythms of speech changed unexpectedly, an important skill for learning to talk.
Previous research has also shown that music training in older children also benefits the brain networks involved in language. A 2014 study, for example, found that the ability of six-year-old children to perceive rhythm was strongly linked to grammar skills.
The new UW study, by Christina Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher, and I -LABS co-director Patricia Kuhl, is the first to show the connection between music and speech at nine months of age, Zhao said.
“We really pushed the age down to infancy, which is very important because from the research in our lab, we’ve been showing that this age is really important for babies to learn speech sounds,” Zhao said. “As early as infancy, the experience is making a difference.”
The study, published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reflects Zhao’s personal experiences as a pianist who studied music in college, and as someone who speaks both Mandarin and English.
She noticed that a lot of her fellow musicians also were adept at learning other languages.
“That really got me wondering how these two are related,” Zhao said.