What role does music play in language development?
The Sector > Research > What role does music play in the development of language in babies?

What role does music play in the development of language in babies?

by Freya Lucas

July 10, 2024

While past research has shown that speech plays a critical role in children’s language development, less is known about the music that infants hear.


A new study from the University of Washington (UW) has explored what type of music babies are hearing and how it compares to speech, and what role the presence, or absence, of music has on the development of language in children. 


Both speech and music are dominant elements of an infant’s auditory environment, and the UW study is believed to be one of the first to compare the amount of music and speech that children hear in infancy. Results showed that infants hear more spoken language than music, with the gap widening as the babies get older.


“We wanted to get a snapshot of what’s happening in infants’ home environments,” corresponding author Assistant Professor Christina Zhao shared. 


“Quite a few studies have looked at how many words babies hear at home, and they’ve shown that it’s the amount of infant-directed speech that’s important in language development. We realised we don’t know anything about what type of music babies are hearing and how it compares to speech.”


To reach their conclusions the researchers analysed a dataset of daylong audio recordings collected in English-learning infants’ home environments at the ages of 6, 10, 14, 18 and 24 months. 


At every age, infants were exposed to more music from an electronic device than an in-person source. This pattern was reversed for speech. While the percentage of speech intended for infants significantly increased with time, it stayed the same for music.


“We’re shocked at how little music is in these recordings,” AP Zha said.


“The majority of music is not intended for babies. We can imagine these are songs streaming in the background or on the radio in the car. A lot of it is just ambient.”


These findings were somewhat concerning to the research team, who have also offered ‘highly engaging, multi-sensory movement-oriented music intervention’ in lab settings, where music played while infants were given instruments and researchers taught caregivers how to synchronise their babies’ movement with music. A control group of babies then came to the lab just to play.


“We did that twice,” AP Zhao said. “Both times, we saw the same result: that music intervention was enhancing infant’s neural responses to speech sounds. That got us thinking about what would happen in the real world. This study is the first step into that bigger question.”


Access the findings in full here

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