Why Babies Love Music
Music won't make your baby smarter, but it may make her happier.
The Mozart Myth
Shortly before my first child was born, the governor of my state -- Zell Miller, now a U.S. Senator -- made a startling announcement: Every baby born in Georgia would receive a free classical music CD at the hospital. This wasn't just some bonus prize for being born; it was a start to making Georgians smarter. "Listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess," the governor's statement said. Wow, I thought, all that from a CD? My soon-to-be Georgia peach would be smarter than her mom and dad combined.
We got our CD, but it turns out that in the world of baby smarts, as in life, there are no quick, easy, free solutions. Governor Miller, who based his initiative on an article in Time magazine, got it a wee bit wrong. In fact, the much-referenced study, which gave rise to the phrase "the Mozart Effect," showed that college-age students who listened to Mozart for 10 minutes did better on a spatial relations test a few minutes later. The Mozart Effect, such as it was, was specific, fleeting, and had nothing whatsoever to do with babies.
Nevertheless, the study managed to make believers of a whole generation of new parents who got sucked into buying all manner of pint-size instruments and musical toys and enrolling their 4-month-olds in music classes. The trend seemed to be a side effect of bad science reporting in the popular press over the last decade or so.
In addition to the myths about the Mozart Effect -- and the ensuing number of musical toys with grand claims about making babies smarter -- there was a lot of ink devoted to the importance of the first three years of life. Parents were sold on the "use it or lose it" theory -- the notion that unless certain areas of the brain (those that would turn Johnny into a brilliant mathematician, for instance) were stimulated in those crucial early months of life, the window of opportunity would snap shut, never to open again. Classical music was considered an important stimulus, so a parent who failed to play hours of the stuff for her infant was clearly irresponsible.
Well, all those parents out there can relax. "There is no scientific research on the effect listening to music has on a baby's intelligence," says Frances Rauscher, PhD, a psychologist with the University of Wisconsin and the lead researcher on the college-student study that launched all the brouhaha. Our Mozart Effect research was blown way out of proportion."
The Musical Payoff
None of this, of course, implies that exposing our children to music pays no intellectual dividends. Rauscher and her colleagues have continued their research and found that there is a positive effect on children's spatial-temporal (puzzle-solving) and math skills when those as young as 3-years-old are given formal musical instruction -- when they actively study and play music, not merely listen to it. According to Norman Weinberger, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California in Irvine, "Music learning and practice benefit many mental and behavioral processes, including cognitive development, language learning, reading ability, creativity, motor skills, and social adjustment."
But none of these effects have been studied in babies. Piano lessons may make older kids smarter in some ways, but just popping in a CD (be it Raffi or Rachmaninoff) is not going to do much for your infant besides tickle his fancy.
Of course, as every loving parent knows, that is a worthy goal in its own right. "It's such a kick to see Lizzie's eyes light up and to watch her little legs pump up and down every time she hears the first notes of a song she likes," says Detroit mother Kay Blava, about her 6-month-old daughter. "It's so obviously pure pleasure for her."
Even more significant is music that emanates from a parent herself. "Singing to your child is so important," says Sandra E. Trehub, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. "In contrast to recordings that sound exactly the same at every hearing, a mother fine-tunes her voice to her baby's needs. When her baby is cheerful, she sings in an upbeat voice. When she is fretful, Mom sings in a soothing manner. Since babies can't really regulate their own moods in the early months of life, a mother's singing plays a vital role here."
Trehub, who has studied cultures around the world and found music to be an integral part of every one of them, notes that singing to your baby also reinforces bonds between you. "The natural pleasure Mom gets from singing to her baby is amplified by her enjoyment. For the baby, those songs and the way they're sung become associated with pleasure, enjoyment, a sense of security, and good things in general."
Music Classes for Mom and Baby
It was my own instinct to sing to my baby (but not really knowing what to sing) that led me to enroll in The Music Class, a nationwide franchise of mommy-baby music classes, when my daughter was just 4 months old. If I had ever needed evidence that music is one of the basic human pleasures, this class provided it in spades.
The moms and kids, who ranged from 4 months to 4 years, sang, danced, learned a little about the music, and got to see some great instruments up close -- tubas, violins, flutes, African drums, and a harp, among others. The class leader gave us a songbook and a CD for home listening and we wore them both out. We also learned finger plays to do together at home. My daughter was enchanted.
Rob Sayer, director of The Music Class, says he started the company to get kids listening to music at an early age so that future musical instruction (the more formal kind) would come more easily. My kids are still too young for me to see whether this will pan out, but there is no question that those early classes -- which my 9-month-old son now enthusiastically attends -- have ignited a love for music in both of them that I never had at that age.
That Mozart CD we got in the hospital doesn't get much play in our house -- it's usually skipped in favor of our Music Class CDs -- but we've added dozens of other CDs to our collection. The best part of music class for us has been the great times it's fostered. And for that, I've realized, we didn't really need classes or even CDs; our own voices and pots and pans would have worked just fine, too.
Trehub agrees that having fun with your baby is one of music's greatest perks. But equally important, she suggests, is its role as a cultural guidepost for children. Songs, both heard and sung, are a classic way for kids to learn about language, customs, and the larger world as a whole. Indeed, Weinberger has observed that many babies begin singing around the same time they start using language, and first words are often part of familiar songs.
"Even before literacy was widespread, crucial cultural information -- how to plant crops, the location of tribal boundaries -- was embedded in songs so it could be transmitted from one generation to the next," says Trehub. "Babies today learn animal names and sounds, counting, colors, stories, and, of course, the alphabet from the songs they hear and sing." My own children have picked up Spanish (their father's native language) from songs, and our friend Michael Schill of Philadelphia claims that his 2-year-old understands the contributions that snakes and spiders make to pest control, thanks to the endless playing of Mary Miche's Earthy Tunes album.
Dan Zanes, a former member of the rock group Del Fuegos, now makes his living recording kids' music, a field he entered after becoming a dad himself. Zanes believes the movement to make babies smarter through music misses the point and the real value of music. "We all have music in us," he says. "We need to expose our children to it so it becomes part of the fabric of everyday life."
Zanes says that he is often asked to sing at birthday parties, but he usually declines, urging parents to do it themselves instead. "Why leave it up to the professionals?" asks Zanes, who believes live music -- even if it's just Mom and Dad fooling around with homemade instruments -- is far more beneficial than anything heard on a CD. "In previous generations, families would sit on their front porches and sing along as Grandpa played the guitar. I'm for a return to all that. It's a connection to our past and a beautiful way for people to gather together. Plus, it's fun!"
"Singing to your kids is just as important as reading to them," says Tom Chapin, another children's recording artist. "Even books don't give the same kind of quality, one-on-one interaction as singing because words only convey meaning, whereas music conveys emotion." Chapin believes that music confers many valuable lessons, none of them having to do with mastering math skills. "Songs comfort your baby; they help make the world a safe place for her."
In other words, beyond all that hype, there may be something to the Mozart Effect after all. While it certainly doesn't begin to live up to its grandiose claims of instilling long-lasting genius in infants, it has spurred a generation of parents to expose their babies to music, and that makes for happier babies.
So, by all means, keep playing those CDs. And sing to your child. Dance with her. Make up silly rhymes and songs. Take her to music class if you like, or simply pull out the pots and pans and make noise. Incorporate music into your everyday life as often as you can. Not because it will make your child a brilliant mathematician, but because it's another enjoyable experience that nurtures her -- and your relationship with her.
Heather Moors Johnson, a mother of two, lives in Decatur, Georgia.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.