Miriam Schnider holds her four-month-old son, Jaxon, as he confidently hits his little mallet on a baby xylophone to the tune of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” They’re seated on a living-room carpet in a circle of four smiling babies and their parents. One little tyke shakes a rattle to the rhythm of the guitar; another bounces up and down in her mom’s arms.
It’s their fifth week at Little Tunes, a baby music class for infants and toddlers three to 18 months old in Toronto, run by Schnider’s friend, certified music therapist Miya Adout. There, Schnider and her little man do everything from singing to playing instruments. Jaxon was timid at first, but now he’s a natural.
“He loves the drums,” says Schnider, an early-childhood educator and elementary school teacher. “He’ll actually bang his fists like Donkey Kong on them—he goes crazy with it.”
Adout says the goal of her baby music class is to “have parent and infant bond through music-making.” As parent and child connect using music, babies also enjoy other important benefits.
A 2012 study out of McMaster University showed that babies who participated in music classes with their parents in the first year of life “smile more, communicate better and show earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.”
Laurel Trainor, the author of the study and the director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, says that through hands-on music classes, infants are exposed to activities that help develop their motor skills (like crawling and grabbing things), language skills and social skills—all of which stimulate their brains.
Besides an early appreciation of music, here are some of the rich cognitive and developmental benefits of baby music classes:
Using music to help infants be in tune with emotions like happiness, sadness and anger gives them a solid foundation for social skills, Trainor says. By conveying those emotions through song and combining it with parent interaction, like bouncing games and instrument play, infants can become familiar with these feelings early on and kick-start their own emotional awareness.
“A lot of social development involves feeling emotions, understanding your emotions and empathizing with other people,” Trainor says. “So there’s something about the fact that music elicits these emotions in us that makes it particularly powerful for social development.”
Another McMaster study showed that moving in sync to music with others helps toddlers form social bonds. The study observed that 14-month-olds were more likely to help an adult (who dropped something) if they had previously bounced in time with the music, compared with an adult whose movement was off-tempo.
As infants discover new instruments, they figure out how to use them and how to make the sounds they want. “Babies, they’re not that coordinated,” Trainor says. “So they have to learn to coordinate their actions, but in response to the information that’s coming in.”
Infants can develop their motor skills by, for example, playing an instrument like the tambourine—or, as Schnider did with Jaxon, having your baby grasp a mallet and guiding their hands over xylophone keys. As they catch on, infants can then practise refining their movements to make a desired sound. That also plays into another amazing benefit…
The mix of sensory awareness and motor control is crucial for a baby’s overall development, Trainor says. Being able to notice differences in sounds and fine-tune one’s movements is important for playing instruments and even learning to talk and sing.
Schnider notices that music classes have made Jaxon more comfortable around loud sounds, as well. As he's gotten used to noisy instruments like drums, she says, the world around him has become a bit less scary. For example, on a recent outing, balloons were popping while she was out with friends, which startled Jaxon but didn’t make him cry like loud noises previously would.
Any exposure to language is good for babies, especially through an accessible activity like making music. As Schnider discovered first-hand, singing can prompt babies to chime in, in their own little way.
“[Early] Jaxon was kind of quiet during the music, but now he kind of babbles and will do his own sort of talk during the music class,” she says. Research shows that gabbing attempts—even if it’s just gibberish—is good for babies’ brains and can even give them a leg up once they start school.
The classes teach parents to soothe their babies through music, particularly by singing favourite songs, which helps to create healthy associations. “It helps [babies] to trust the parent because the parent becomes effective at helping the baby to regulate their state [of],” Trainor says. Music is also an important tool for expression and self-regulation and allowing your child to be aware of their own emotions, and recognize that their state can be shifted by positive triggers.
Researchers at the University of Washington discovered that musical play sessions help activate parts of the brain responsible for both music and speech processing, as well as other important cognitive skills like controlling attention and noticing patterns. When looking at the responses to music of two different groups of babies through a brain scan, the study found the group who participated in musical activities showed a stronger response to changes in the music than the group who played with toys while music simply played in the background.
A similar McMaster study supports this, showing that while infants seem to be naturally drawn to beats and rhythms, babies who go to music classes show more responsiveness than those who don’t. The study says having musically trained parents helps with this as well.
Last but not least, life as a new parent is hectic, but it’s important to spend regular focused time with your little one in order to strengthen those parent-child emotional connections, Trainor says. Having fun by experiencing music together is one of the best ways to do that. “We try to give opportunities for the parents to really engage with their little ones in music,” Adout says. “Instead of just having babies playing and playing instruments and moving [alone], we get the parents involved.”
Even something as simple as singing to your child can do wonders in building a stronger bond, according to a study from the University of Miami. While researchers discovered that babies engage more with being sung to versus just listening to music, they also noticed that as mothers sing to their children, they have a natural ability to adjust their singing to keep their baby’s attention. The mutual interaction also results in feeling more empowered as a parent, the study says, which is particularly helpful for mothers with postpartum depression.
Like singing, there's still a lot you can do at home if you can't get to a music class:
You don’t need to spend a ton of money on musical instruments. Pots and pans are great for beat-making, or you can create do-it-yourself shakers by taking empty water bottles and putting some pebbles or small raw pasta shells inside (make sure to superglue the cap shut!). You can also make a tiny guitar with a tissue box or shoebox and some rubber bands for your little ones to try plucking at.
For parents looking to add a little 21st century to their musical endeavours, technology offers plenty of options. Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music has a neat app called Smart Start packed with musical activities to do with your child wherever you go and songs that it says will aid in your baby’s brain development. iPhone users can download the app, which includes a free album and two purchasable albums, from the App Store.
There are also YouTube channels like Intellidancing that have excellent examples of musical play to do with your little ones. You can even find digital playlists and albums like “Lullabies and LapRhymes” by mother-daughter team Sally Jaeger and Erika Webster, which have a collection of fun songs to play along with your little ones.
Trainor says incorporating music into daily routines is a marvellous way to make them more enjoyable for your children. For example, having a bedtime song can be very effective in winding down rambunctious tots. Think of it as some mild baby brainwash.
The same can also be done for making household chores more enjoyable for little ones. For example, rather than simply asking your children to clean up after themselves, take some inspiration from a beloved purple dinosaur (Barney, the legend of the cleanup song) to make being neat and tidy a blast for babies and their parents.
According to Trainor, there’s no evidence that one type of music is better for children’s development than another. In fact, researchers at the University of Vienna debunked the idea that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. All that matters is that you enjoy the music you’re playing. Because if you’re happy, your baby will be happy, too.
Whether you’re participating in a baby music class or enjoying musical moments in other ways, make sure you make the most of the experience with your baby. For Schnider, once the Little Tunes sessions are over, she says she continues singing and playing music with Jaxon at home (their favourite song is “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles). Schnider hopes parents take the time to explore music classes with their children. “It’s not only the chance to spend the time with your child, but it’s also a chance…to see how important it is to incorporate music into a child’s life.”