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  • Writer's pictureCarla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC

Music in Early Childhood: Physical and Cognitive Benefits

Early childhood is a time of wonder, exploration, and growth. The first few years of life have a tremendous and lasting impact on learning, brain development, and physical and mental health. It is estimated that during these formative years, the human brain forms one million new neural connections every second. These connections become the foundation upon which future learning is built.

All parents want a happy and healthy child. Do you remember the Mozart Effect? A phenomenon when it was published back in the 1990’s, this book and subsequent group of CDs suggested that listening to classical music improved children’s IQs. What followed was a generation of parents pressing headphones against their pregnant bellies with the hope of raising their baby’s intelligence. While the science behind the “Mozart Effect” has since been debunked, the desire for parents to give their children every possible advantage and the idea that music may help children learn and grow still applies. There is now compelling evidence that active involvement in music does have beneficial effects on many areas of child development.

Physical Development

Music is a natural way to promote physical development in young children. Dancing and exploring instruments tap into children’s inherent curiosity and love of sound and movement. In fact, a 2010 study published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that babies find music more engaging than speech, and are born with the ability and desire to move rhythmically to music. 

Music and movement are inseparable in young children. Dancing involves processing sounds and patterns and responding to rhythms in a way that requires coordination, motor planning, and flexibility. Instruments provide opportunities to practice motor control. Children quickly learn that striking a drum forcefully makes a loud sound, while isolating each finger to press piano keys can create distinct tones.  

Research shows that music training enhances the development of motor skills in children. Instrumental training in early childhood enhances fine motor skills, or the ability to use small muscle movements, and also results in structural brain changes. Music and movement classes have been shown to improve complex locomotor skills, such as galloping, leaping, and skipping. 

Music Therapy for Physical Development

While music is a fun and effective way to promote the development of critical motor skills for all children, music therapy can provide specific interventions to help children who are not meeting their developmental milestones. This includes children with sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and a variety of physical and developmental challenges. 

Music therapy can help:

  • Improve strength and stamina

  • Improve hand-eye coordination

  • Promote bilateral body movements

  • Reinforce directional and spatial concepts

  • Improve body awareness and motor planning

  • Teach strategies to modulate arousal levels

Cognitive Development

Parents know that reading to their children is important. But did you know that making music together may have even greater benefits? A large study of over 3,000 two & three year old children found that informal music making at home (think making up silly songs or exploring instrument sounds) improved attention, numeracy, and prosocial skills more than reading together did. Many studies have now documented cognitive improvements in children who receive music lessons, along with demonstrated changes to brain structures. “Children who have received music training showed differences in the thickness of the auditory areas in the right versus the left hemisphere, a sign that music training impacts brain structure. In addition, children learning to play and read music showed a stronger robustness of the white matter, a sign of stronger connectivity in the corpus callosum, an area that allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.” 

Two areas of particular interest to researchers exploring the connections between music and cognitive development are literacy and numeracy (math skills). We now know that literacy is strongly connected to sound patterns, or phonological awareness. In fact, how well preschool-aged children can detect rhythms correlates with their future reading abilities. Engagement in music is all about sound awareness and exploration, and strengthens the same areas of the brain associated with reading and language skills. There is also a relationship between musical training and math skills. Music engagement builds spatial reasoning skills, pattern awareness, and counting skills. Active involvement in music provides opportunities to practice many important academic and pre-academic skills.

For example:

  • Categorization is an important cognitive skill for young children to develop. The ability to categorize things as the same or different and to understand groupings are important milestones. Music offers many opportunities for categorization- through grouping instruments, identifying sounds as the same or different, or teaching colors through song.

  • Many children’s songs include opportunities to work on counting. “5 Little Monkeys” is a great rhythmic chant that counts down from 5 to 0.  “This Old Man” and “Ants go Marching” pair counting with rhyming words and give children lots of opportunities to add movements and engage in creative play.

Music Therapy and Cognitive Development

Music therapists work with children of all ages on goals related to learning and cognitive development. Long before they are enrolled in school, children are using their senses to explore and learn. Music therapists use the structure, rhythm, patterns, and sounds of music in a deliberate manner to promote success, reinforce skills, and help children reach their potential.

Music therapy can help:

  • Increase attention spans

  • Improve executive functioning

  • Teach academic concepts

  • Teach life skills

  • Develop pre-academic skills such as attending, cause-effect, turn-taking, and following directions

Music at Home

What does all of this mean for your young children? Music is good for their bodies and minds, and should be a part of daily life in your family! The best news is that you don’t have to be a great musician to include music in your family’s life. Children naturally enjoy music and they want to explore it with you. Repetition is key with young children, as they will enjoy and benefit from hearing the same songs or repeating the same patterns. As children age, you can add novelty by changing the tempo, volume, or lyrics.

Singing: Singing with young children is a meaningful, bonding experience that combines focused attention, repetition, and surprise. Parents in all cultures sing to their infants to soothe and calm them. Sing songs that are associated with tasks at home like cleaning up, setting the table, and riding in the car. Allow yourself to be creative and make up your own songs, or use an existing children’s song and change the words. An easy way to start is changing to words to a familiar song, like singing “Mary had a little sock” while getting dressed. Give your child an opportunity to make choices and sing along. Encourage this by pausing at the end of a phrase and having your child fill in the missing word. 

Playing: Quality learning and maximum participation happen when children experience the joy of play. Exploring sounds and motor skills using musical instruments is a fun and interactive way to learn. Having a variety of instruments around the house is great, but not necessary. Children can explore sounds on common household objects like pots and pans, containers, and safe wooden or metal objects. 

Moving: Opportunities to move and dance to music at home are everywhere! Put on your favorite tunes and have a family dance party. Expose children to a variety of musical styles and sounds. You don’t have to stick to traditional children’s music, and are probably more likely to put on a music and interact with your child to a song that you love. If you are concerned about inappropriate lyrics, there are music services now that clean up popular songs to be more kid appropriate. Don’t forget to include traditional songs that you grew up with, or songs from your family’s culture. 

Accessing Music Therapy Services

Music therapy takes the compelling ways that music engages and benefits children, and uses it as a tool to help meet developmental and learning goals. Music therapists work as part of the IEP (Individualized Education Program - ages 3-21),  IFSP (Individual Family Services Plan ages 0-3) on the same goals as the rest of the team, but bringing with us the power of music.

For children who are receiving early intervention services, music therapy can be an important addition to their treatment plan. Music therapy is considered a related service under the Federal IDEA Law. This includes both Part B (for children ages 3-21 years) and Part C (for babies and toddlers ages 0-3). Adding music therapy services through these programs may be possible with an assessment by a board-certified music therapist and collaboration with the IEP or IFSP team.

For questions about parent/child music groups or about accessing music therapy services for your child, contact us today!  

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