Music can help improve the way a baby responds to speech, researchers have found.

Experts said that experiencing music has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills.

The rhythmic pattern in music can improve a baby’s ability to detect and make predictions about such patterns in speech, they said.

Like music, language has strong rhythmic patterns, and the ability to identify differences in speech sounds helps babies learn how to speak.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that a series of play sessions with music improved nine-month-old babies’ brain processing of both music and new speech sounds.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saw babies attend 12- to 15-minute play sessions over the course of a month.

Twenty babies in a music group attended sessions where an experimenter led the babies and their parents through tapping out the beats in time with music.

The baby’s job is to recognise the patterns of activity and predict what’s going to happen next

Nineteen babies in the control group attended play sessions that did not involve music.

After the sessions concluded, researchers scanned the babies’ brains as they listened to a series of music and speech sounds, each played out in a rhythm that was occasionally disrupted. The babies’ brains would show a particular response to indicate they could detect the disruption.

Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to the disruption in both music and speech rhythm, they found.

“Our study is the first in young babies to suggest that experiencing a rhythmic pattern in music can also improve the ability to detect and make predictions about rhythmic patterns in speech,” said lead author Christina Zhao, a post-doctoral researcher at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

“This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills. In both the music and control groups, we gave babies experiences that were social, required their active involvement and included body movements – these are all characteristics that we know help people learn.

“The key difference between the play groups was whether the babies were moving to learn a musical rhythm.”

Co-author, Patricia Kuhl added: “Infants experience a complex world in which sounds, lights and sensations vary constantly.

“The baby’s job is to recognise the patterns of activity and predict what’s going to happen next. Pattern perception is an important cognitive skill, and improving that ability early may have long-lasting effects on learning.

“This research reminds us that the effects of engaging in music go beyond music itself. Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills that enhance children’s abilities to detect, expect and react quickly to patterns in the world, which is highly relevant in today’s complex world.”

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