Friday, May 11, 2012

Musical Prodigies in Diapers? Science and Early Music Training

A recent study published in Developmental Science suggests that early training in active "participitory" musical experience boosts a six month old's communications and social skills.
We found that random assignment to 6 months of active participatory musical experience beginning at 6 months of age accelerates acquisition of culture-specific knowledge of Western tonality in comparison to a similar amount of passive exposure to music. Furthermore, infants assigned to the active musical experience showed superior development of prelinguistic communicative gestures and social behaviour compared to infants assigned to the passive musical experience. These results indicate that (1) infants can engage in meaningful musical training when appropriate pedagogical approaches are used, (2) active musical participation in infancy enhances culture-specific musical acquisition, and (3) active musical participation in infancy impacts social and communication development. _Developmental Science (abstract)
Six months has always been considered too early to begin musical training for infants. But if, in fact, the infant brain is particularly "plastic" to musical training at, or near, the age of six months, it may someday be seen as a sign of parental neglect to deprive infants of active participatory musical training!

The researchers describe a six-month experiment featuring 34 infants and their parents. The babies’ average age at the time of the first session was six and one-half months; the last week of classes occurred around their first birthday. Twenty of the infants and their parents participated in weekly, hour-long interactive music classes, which utilized the well-known Suzuki method.

“Two teachers worked with the parents and infants to build a repertoire of lullabies, action songs and nursery rhymes,” the researchers write. “Parents were encouraged to use the curriculum CD at home and to repeat the songs and rhymes daily.”

The other 14 infants and their parents enrolled in passive music classes, where they listened to “a rotating series of recordings from the popular Baby Einstein series” while playing together with balls, blocks or books. After six months, those who took part in the active music lessons demonstrated a preference for tonal over atonal music—a pattern not found in the passive group. In addition, the researchers found “significantly larger and/or earlier responses” to piano tones in the brains of the babies who took active lessons.

But the benefits of this training went far beyond early indications of music appreciation.

“After participation in active music classes, infants showed much lower levels of distress when confronted with novel stimuli than after participation in passive music classes,” the researchers report. All the babies smiled and laughed less as they aged during the experiment, but the fall-off was greater among the passive listeners.

Communication skills were also positively affected. “Use of gestures increased greatly between six and 12 months of age,” the researchers note, “but increased more so for those in the active compared to the passive music classes.”

Trainor and her colleagues do not view these developments as isolated. “Positive social interactions between infants and parents likely lead to better communication and earlier acquisition of communicative gestures, which in turn lead to more positive social interactions,” they write. _PSMag
It is important to emphasise that parental participation was key to the positive social and communication skills results obtained from the "active participatory" training group. Parent-child bonding was almost certainly enhanced as well.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of parental involvement in critical period training of children. If parents are too busy to help children take optimal advantage of developmental windows, it is unlikely that anyone else will take the necessary amount of care in such training opportunities.

If parents are there every step of the child's critical development and skills acquisition, the bonding of common experience and the building of trust as the child gains confidence and competence, will pay lifetime dividends for both parent and child.

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