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Benefits of Early Music Education - By Freya Dalgleish

We all know that music is ‘good’ for young children, but have you ever really looked at how and why? The benefits of early childhood group music classes are much more wide-ranging than you might expect and are certainly not limited to being able to play a maraca to the beat!

Music education programs for infants and toddlers have been shown to develop cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and pre-academic skills, as well as deepening and strengthening the parent-child relationship and benefiting carers. Research into the effect of music programs on developing minds has been ongoing for decades, and new discoveries are being made all the time. The fields of music psychology, neuromusicology, music education and music therapy are only a few of the academic areas looking into how music affects young children.

Our brains are ‘hard-wired’ for music. Music is present in every human culture and many animal cultures, there are specialised areas of the brain which process music, and musical interactions can be understood from birth. Early childhood is also when our brains do most of their development – most neural connections are established by the time a child is three years old, and their brains reach 90% of their adult volume by age five. That makes 0-5 years the perfect time to start music education, as kids are never too young to benefit.

Neurological benefits

Playing instruments, dancing, listening to music and musical play create new neural connections right across developing brains. Neurological changes include an increase in overall brain size, increased processing speed in motor and auditory processing areas, as well as improving ‘executive functioning’ which includes attention, memory, planning, impulse control and some language skills. All of which you’ll want your children to develop as early as possible! The neurological connections formed in early childhood are maintained into adulthood, regardless of whether the child has any further musical training after the age of five. Early childhood music classes are amazing for developing young brains!

Cognitive benefits

Cognition includes our ability to: maintain and direct attention; create, store and retrieve memories; make and carry out plans; and control our impulses. Musical games and interactions capture and hold the attention of young children more successfully than non-musical play. You may have witnessed your own child suddenly stop and react to a favourite familiar song, regardless of other distractions. Memory is also enhanced, as recalling lyrics and dance moves or actions are fun and engaging memory games, which also assist with planning physical and vocal expression. Impulse control is supported in music classes through activities that involve turn-taking, ‘stop and start’ or ‘freeze’ musical games, and the sharing of instruments. In each of these, children need to regulate their emotional reactions and suppress any impulsive actions. The reward of making music together or playing a game successfully makes this emotional regulation and impulse control ‘worth it’, and these skills can be extended into other aspects of life.

Emotional benefits

The benefits of music on the emotions of infants and toddlers have been known to parents and grandparents for generations. Lullabies and ‘quiet’ songs or stories are a natural and effective way to soothe and calm a child who is distressed or needs help to transition to sleep. At Mini Maestros we use these kinds of songs to help children wind down after the excitement of dancing and playing instruments, and to help them recognise that class is coming to an end.

Play songs, however, are used to gain attention and increase focus and activity in young children, as this allows more complex and engaged learning to take place. Play songs, choice-making and ‘solos’ also provide a safe space for self-expression. You may have seen children in class choose unusual actions in the ‘Hello’ song (my favourite so far is ‘milk bottle’ – a difficult action to accompany on the ukulele!) or sing ‘Goodbye’ using voices that might not be considered conventionally musical! Children experience personal agency and self-esteem when making these creative decisions. Reaching new milestones - such as singing aloud for the first time, remembering all the actions in a dance, learning how to roll their hands or play solos on the chime bars - boosts self-esteem and overall emotional health in young children.

Social benefits

The social benefits of group music classes are many and varied. Children and carers make new friends and children develop verbal and non-verbal communication skills. In our classes, students learn to take turns, share instruments, play and dance together harmoniously in a group and in pairs, speak or sing in front of a group, and be appropriate ‘audience members’ while other classmates perform. Older students learn about rhyme and begin to compose their own lyrics, while younger students develop linguistic skills through naming body parts, colours, numbers and animals. They also begin to understand the didactic teacher-student relationship, which is important as they move into primary education.

Physical benefits

Dancing, lap play and finger play games are engaging and fun tools that promote physical development. Lap play games and ‘carrying’ dances for infants are excellent for improving balance and co-ordination of limbs. More independent dancing activates the motor, auditory, visual and planning parts of the brain; accelerates gross and fine motor skill development; as well as releasing endorphins and improving mood. That is a lot of benefits from ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ (which also supports language acquisition by naming body parts)! Counting on fingers, using instruments, and manipulating puppets and props are also fantastic for developing fine motor skills (fingers) that are critical for later academic learning (writing, typing, and nowadays using touch screens).

Carer-child relationship benefits

Carer-child attachment and child development are intrinsically linked, and emotionally communicative interactions between parent and child influence the development of the child’s brain and regulatory systems. Music is a wonderful form of emotional communication that all parents and carers can use.

The carer-child relationship is critical to infant and child wellbeing and infants experience musical interactions as inherently social. Therefore, music can be used to deepen the carer-child relationship and enhance emotional responsiveness between adults and pre-verbal children. Dancing, or moving in time with another person, is described as ‘interpersonal synchrony’ which helps young children feel that their emotions are being recognised and responded to in a caring manner. Infant-directed singing leads to more sustained attention from the infant and can calm or engage the child. Babies show a consistent preference for their mother’s voice, even over other musical female voices, and infant-directed speech is inherently musical, with rhythmic and melodic ‘sing-song’ elements. So even if you don’t think your voice is very good, your child thinks it is the most beautiful sound in the universe! Research has shown that parents’ reasons for not using music at home are time constraints, lack of confidence in musical abilities, and perceived lack of knowledge of appropriate repertoire, but with a few songs from music class and your own unique voice, you have all the tools you need to enhance your connection with your child.

Shared music experiences can create opportunities for positive emotional communication, allowing parents to be actively ‘in tune’ with their child’s needs, and infants will respond and recognise these forms of musical interaction. Using music for emotional regulation, in conjunction with a deepened carer-child attachment can also lead to greater emotional understanding between carer and child.

When contrasted to non-musical play, musical interactions between carers and young children have been shown to result in greater attention from the infant, and for carers it provides greater feelings of ‘togetherness’, clearer frameworks to observe developmental progress, higher feelings of parental effectiveness, greater perceived success in modulating infant emotional states, and greater effect on carer’s emotional state. That means, making music together makes everyone feel better, not just the children!

School-readiness benefits

The move into ‘big school’ requires a combination of social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills, and some numeracy and literacy knowledge is obviously of huge benefit too! We use many songs with explicit or implicit references to numbers, colours, shapes, animal sounds (vital in early language acquisition), rhyme, and for older students we introduce more complex concepts including music notation - the symbolic visual representation of sound. These, along with the benefits in emotional regulation, attention, planning, impulse control, and social skills will help our students prepare for starting primary school.

Bonus benefits for grownups!

Apart from enhancing the parent-child relationship, music classes provide parents with an extensive repertoire of songs and activities that they can use at home, improving parenting skills and feelings of efficacy among parents. Not to mention making nappy changes and bath time significantly less stressful! Increased parenting knowledge, ability to modulate infant emotional states using music, and a positive effect on carer’s emotional state have all resulted from participation in early childhood music groups. Regular classes also help to structure the week for stay-at-home carers and provide meaningful home learning activities to share with the other grownups in the life of the child.

Conclusion

Music education is extremely beneficial for infants and toddlers, helping to develop cognitive, emotional, social and physical skills, as well as enhancing carer-child relationships and setting children up for starting primary school. They also provide benefits for adult carers by increasing feelings of parenting effectiveness and deepening carer-child relationships. What better way to enhance your relationship with the child in your life, and to help them develop into confident learners, with a head-start on school, than to join our music classes! For children aged 6 months to 5 years, with fantastically engaging online offerings during this time of social distancing, Mini Maestros can provide much more than a fun distraction! Music education can prepare you and your child for a happy and fulfilling life ahead.

REFERENCE LIST for further reading:

Bowmer, Mason, Knight & Welch. (2018). Investigating the impact of a musical intervention on prescool children’s exectutive function. Frontiers in Psychology, 20.

Cirelli, L.K., Trehub, S.E. and Trainor, L.J. (2018), Rhythm and melody as social signals for infants. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1423: 66-72.

Creighton, AL. (2011). Mother-infant musical interaction and emotional communication: A literature review. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 22.

Creighton, AL., Atherton, M., & Kitamura, C. (2013). Singing play songs and lullabies: Investigating the subjective contributions to maternal attachment constructs. The Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 24.

De l’Etoile, SK. (2006). Infant-directed singing: a theory for clinical intervention. Music Therapy Perspectives. 2006; 24, 22–29.

Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333(6045), 959–964.

Friedberg, J. (2020). Music with babies and young children: Activities to encourage bonding, communication and wellbeing.

Hallam, S., Cross, I., Thaut, M., & Lamont, A. (2016-01-01). Musical Development from the Early Years Onwards. In The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Hargreaves, D., & Lamont, A. (2017). The Psychology of Musical Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Hyde, KL., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, AC., Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. Journal of Neuroscience. 29 (10) 3019-3025.

Ilari, B. (2016). Music in the early years: Pathways into the social world. Research Studies in Music Education, 38(1), 23–39.

Jacobsen, Stine & Thompson, Grace. (2016). Music Therapy with Families: Therapeutic Approaches and Theoretical Perspectives.

Jayne M. Standley, Clifford K. Madsen, Comparison of Infant Preferences and Responses to Auditory Stimuli: Music, Mother, and Other Female Voice, Journal of Music Therapy, Volume 27, Issue 2, Summer 1990, Pages 54–97.

Jessica Pitt & David J. Hargreaves (2017) Attitudes towards and perceptions of the rationale for parent–child group music making with young children, Music Education Research, 19:3, 292-308.

Lenroot, Rhoshel & Giedd, Jay. (2006). Brain development in children and adolescents: Insights from anatomical magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 30. 718-29.

Nakata, T., & Trehub, S. E. (2004). Infants’ Responsiveness to Maternal Speech and Singing. Infant Behavior and Development, 27, 455-464.

Sarrazin, N. (2016). Music and the Child.

Shoemark, H. (2006). Infant-directed singing as a vehicle for regulation rehearsal in the medically fragile full-term infant. Australian J of Music Therapy. 17.

Skoe, E., & Kraus, N. (2012). A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood. Journal of Neuroscience 22 August 2012, 32 (34) 11507-11510.

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