Music and Language Development

By Molly Alexander

Have you ever heard a toddler recite the lyrics of a song for the first time? Research tells us that babies can understand words before they can say them, so it is not surprising that toddlers will eventually be able to sing the words to a song that they have heard over and over. Nonetheless, it is a thrill to witness! Often a toddler will sing several lyrics all at once— more words than he or she is yet able to string together in everyday speech. What is it exactly about music that is so powerful in connection to language acquisition?

Family Reading Partnership prints the slogan “Talk, Sing, Read, Play” on many of our materials because we know that these four types of interaction promote language and literacy development. When it comes to singing, the benefits are profound. Singing throughout the day helps babies feel safe as they move through daily transitions. For example, have you ever noticed that if you sing a song to your baby while changing her diaper or to a toddler while getting her jacket and shoes on to go outside, that she is more content? It’s as if the song carries her through that transitional space from one moment to the next. Singing also promotes bonding. Looking lovingly into your baby’s eyes while holding him and singing to him strengthens your connection to one another and creates the feeling of being in sync. Infant-directed singing by a parent signals to the infant that her parent is paying attention to her, which makes her feel safe. Singing is also extremely effective at calming a fussy baby. The attentive, secure, and calm state that singing facilitates is optimal for infants to learn and absorb language. Music, along with facial expressions and gestures, creates a rich and pleasurable context for language learning.

The components of language that infants are attuned to during the first year of life can be seen as musical. There is fascinating research in music cognition exploring the evolutionary significance of music that proposes that music is in fact fundamental to language development. From this perspective, language is made up of words that symbolize meaning and the sounds that carry their message are perceived first. An infant’s earliest exposure to language can be seen as a sort of vocal performance, in which infants first pay attention simply to sounds. Parentese— the high pitched vocalizations and sing-song speech patterns practiced by parents all over the world, is the type of speech that babies are most drawn to. When babies first start vocalizing, they play with sounds in the form of cooing and babbling. Only later, after this initial period of playing with sounds, do babies begin to play with meaning. Even earlier than babbling, an infant’s first form of communication is crying. Some music researchers suggest that crying can be considered musical, too, as cry melodies become more complex during the first months of life. 

Music cognition researchers also explore the overlaps between music and language development in the brain. Modern brain imaging tools show that our brains process music and language in a similar way. Recognizing the sounds of different consonants requires rapid processing in the temporal lobe of the brain. Recognizing the difference between two instruments like the trumpet and the piano also requires temporal processing at the same speed. Music and language processing have neurological overlaps, and musical experiences positively impact the trajectory of language development. For instance, exposure to singing can strengthen language development in infancy and even pave the way for improved reading skills later on. When babies hear songs, they begin the process of phonemic awareness— the ability to identify individual sounds in words. Phonemic awareness is fundamental to the letter-sound connections that are needed for reading skills. Songs also introduce new vocabulary and expose babies to rhythm and rhyme, key elements of language. 

Here are some helpful resources with suggestions for how to incorporate music into your family’s life:

Making Music: Literacy Tips for Parents 

Sing To Your Baby: Create Your Own Lullaby 

Songs, Rhymes, and Fingerplays in English and Spanish 

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