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Music and Brain Development

Music and Brain Development

Key finding on infant and early childhood brain development

When current brain research is condensed, what emerges are simple, easy to understand findings that for the most part, reinforce what we know intuitively. Following is a list of the most relevant findings.

Brain development is reliant upon interplay between genes and environment. There is no longer the debate whether our learning is more dependent on nature or nurture. Research indicates that nature lays down a complex system of brain circuitry, but how that circuitry is wired is dependent on external forces such as nutrition, surroundings and stimulation.

Early experiences contribute significantly to the structure of the brain and its capacities. The quality, quantity and consistency of stimulation will determine how nerve fibres within the brain (synapses) develop and function. This is true for both cognitive (gaining of knowledge and perception) and emotional development (the learning about different feelings, social behaviour and appropriate emotional response), and the effect is life-long.

Early interactions, how we relate and respond, directly affect how the brain is “wired”. Children learn in the context of important relationships. Brain cell connections are established as the growing child experiences the surrounding world and forms attachments to parents, family members, and caregivers. Warm, responsive care appears to have a protective biological function, helping the child weather ordinary stresses and prepare for the adverse effects of later stress or trauma. Non-responsive care, absence of care, drug abuse, and trauma can all have an adverse effect on the child’s emotional well – being.

Brain development is not a step-by-step process; it is more like a spiral with waves or windows of opportunity. Learning continues across the life cycle; however, there are windows of opportunity during which the brain is particularly efficient at specific types of learning. Certain critical periods are conducive to developing specific skills. For example, children are most receptive to second language learning from birth to ten. Children are particularly in tune with music between the ages of three and ten.

Brain Fast Facts

Researchers have determined that some memories do exist physically in the brain. When behaviours are repeated numerous times the brain forms a physical manifestation of behaviour called biological substrate. If there is behaviour we want to see automatic in young children, repetition is the key.

Neurons for vision begin forming between the second and fourth month of life. By the time children are two, the synapses in the human brain that allow for sight have matured. Provide plenty of visually stimulating activities for infants.

The optimal ages for musical instruction are between the ages of three and ten. There are few examples of professional musicians who begin studying music later in life. As an added benefit, researchers believe music affects spatial temporal reasoning (the ability to see part/whole relationships). Children who begin piano lessons at the age of three and four score higher on this reasoning skill than their peers who did not receive musical instruction.

Emotions boost memory. When emotions are engaged, the brain is activated. Emotions create a release of chemicals that act as a memory fixative. We all remember our lowest lows and our highest highs. Engage emotions; get children involved and excited.

Small exercise stimulates brain growth. Researchers have verified the positive effects of digital manipulation of the brain. Keep those stringing beads, pegs and clay available.

The size of a toddler’s vocabulary is strongly correlated to how much a mother talks to the child. Talk to children about everything: what they are wearing, what you are doing, what lunch looks like, tastes like, and so on. The more words they hear, the more words they will say.

Infants form permanent maps in their brains based on the native language they hear. During the first year of life, infants distinguish the phonemes (smallest units of sound) of the language they hear, and the neurons in their brain are responsible for sorting out the different sounds. After the first year of life it becomes increasingly difficult for a child to distinguish between sounds. Talk, talk, talk!

Touching babies increases digestive abilities and decreases stress. Infants and toddlers will be calmer when babies digest their food easily and are free from stress. It’s time for good old rocking chair and lap holding. A pat on the back and a hug can count too.

Windows Of Opportunity
0-24 months 2-5 yrs Any Age
Motor Development 0-24 months 2-5 yrs Decreases with age
Vision 0-2 yrs 2-5 yrs Any Age
Early Sounds 4-8 months 8 months – 5 yrs Any Age
Music 0-36 months 3-10 yrs Any Age
Thinking skills 0-48 months 4-10 yrs Any Age
Second Language Acquisition 5-10 yrs Any Age

Windows of opportunity are difficult to verify because results from numerous studies differ slightly. The windows on the chart on the previous page are based on most frequently quoted data. The most rapid rate, Next best Opportunity refers to the strengthening of wiring, and rewiring refers to the ability to make adaptations to existing writing.

Always Across Cross – Lateral Movement and the Brain

Doing arm and leg movements that cross over from one side of the body to the other (cross lateral movements) can have a dramatic affect on learning. Since the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, the two sides of the brain are forced to communicate when the legs and arms cross over.

Our learning and performance are dramatically affected by our biological rhythm. We have cycles of the mind and body that correspond to our lunar solar cycles. Brain research tells us that every ninety minutes, the normal hormone levels of our body’s peak. This peak causes the brain to get stuck on the right side or the left side. The use of cross-lateral movement is an easy way to “unstick” the brain”. We need to engage both sides of the brain to learn efficiently and effectively.

The Important of Music in Develpment

All early sounds, including music and rhythms, play a profound role in sharpening the brain. The positive effect music has on brain development is a very popular area of brain research. Although people seem happy to hop on the music bandwagon, we must interpret the research accurately and take care not to oversimplify or overgeneralise. There are a number of studies related to music and brain research. There is evidence that listening to music (and, for older children, learning a musical instrument) can boost memory, attention, motivation and learning. It can also lower stress, activate both sides of the brain, and increase spatial temporal reasoning.

Some of the most well known studies include the following:

  1. Jean Houston, leading pioneer in the effect of music on physical and mental abilities, states that music raises the molecular structure of the body. Music does this because it has its own wavelength frequency. When music resonates with our body rhythms it has a positive influence on our alertness and our ability to learn.
  2. Webb and Webb say that music rhythms, patterns, contrasts, and varying tonalities encode any new information.  The researchers believe that music is a powerful way to present information.
  3. Scartelli reports that music is a mood enhancer. Favourite songs boost endorphins: endorphins boost attention and memory.
  4. Clynes says that there is a greater consistency in the body’s pulse responses to classical music than to rock.
  5. Research by Graziano validates effect of piano lessons on spatial temporal reasoning. Four year old students who took six months of piano lessons scored thirty percent higher on temporal spatial activities than their peers who received six months of singing or computer lessons.

Studies suggest that listening to music during the first three years of life helps the brain form patterns that are essential to the learning process. The brain adapts easily during the early years, so a wide variety of music should be introduced. There is no concert level performer in recorded history who began training after the age of ten.

Ideas for Using Music to Build Brain Power
Sing, sing, sing to unborn and newborn children.

  • Create a special music appreciation time a couple of times a week. Explore different kinds of music.
  • Sing a song, any song, to start the day.
  • Use songs to introduce information. For example, use ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ to learn about spiders. ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to learn about nighttime, and ‘Rain Rain Go Away’ to learn about the weather.
  • Play marching music and invite children to create different marching steps such as high steps, fast steps, long steps.
  • Play a xylophone. Invite children to stand as the notes go up the scale and sit as the notes go down the scale.
  • Invite children to move with streamers or scarves to the rhythm of the music.
  • Make home made band instruments. For example, rubber bands and a shoebox make a great guitar, paper plates and popcorn make a great maraca, a spoon and a pie pan make a cymbal, and a stick and a box make a drum.
  • Provide musical instruments for exploration. Xylophones, pianos, keyboards and drums are all intriguing to children and are great for exploring notes, tones and chords.
  • Invite children to listen to a variety of music and then select music for the background of a story. For example, use scary music for when the wolf comes to the doors of the three pigs and happy music when the pigs are safe.
  • Visit a high school band or orchestra. If possible, invite children to sit among the musicians. Does the music sound different when you sit among the instruments?
  • Play music in the car. Have a variety of selections.
  • Offer music lessons to students who are interested. The best time for music instruction is between the ages of three and ten.
  • Take children to symphonies and operas that are appropriate. Many places offer special performances just for children.
  • Model a love for music. Individuals who truly love music listen to it more and therefore enjoy the positive effects associated with music.

The Power of New: Novelty and the Brain

The brain plays closer attention to things that don’t fit an established pattern, things that are new and different (novel). What we are accustomed to becomes routine, and over time, the brain reacts to routine stimulus by lowering levels of stimulation. Anything new causes the body to release adrenalin and adrenalin acts as a body fixative. According to Arnold Scheibel, the Director of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, “Unfamiliar activities are the brain’s best friend.”

Ideas for using Novelty to Build Brain Power

  • Rearrange children’s toys and equipment every so often (about six weeks). Also rotate books on the library shelf. Note: Be sure children are ready for this as too much change can be upsetting.
  • Rotate toys. Put some things away for a couple of months and then bring them out again.
  • Rearrange furniture. Let children help.
  • Place unusual items together. Try putting the dishes with the blocks or Legos with the art supplies. Stand back and watch what happens.
  • Encourage children to sleep at the opposite end of their beds.
  • Take a walk in the neighbourhood. Try walking backwards.

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