For generations, adults have soothed and entertained babies with music and song. Many of them never realized that sound, set to rhythm or music, has a stimulating effect on an infant’s developing brain. The added benefit of a baby having human interaction makes musical play a bonding experience as well. You need not be Pavarotti or even Raffi to inspire musical enjoyment and development in your infant.
The Baby Einstein empire is evidence that many adults acknowledge their significant role in helping infants to develop cognitive and motor skills. Baby Mozart notwithstanding, there is no evidence that classical music has a stronger developmental influence on an infant than a favorite Beatles album or a book of nursery rhymes. However, music is a powerful force in developing an infant’s emotional, linguistic and motor skills, be it through soothing lullabies, rhyming stories or rhythmic activities. Musical activities have the additional benefit of making learning fun, without the pressure of flash cards or other learning tools.
The effects of music depend upon the infant and the environment in which activities are introduced. In general, reciting nursery rhymes and singing patterned songs such as "If You’re Happy and You Know It" or "The Farmer in the Dell" give an infant a sense of the rhythm and sound of language, even if they cannot form the words to replicate it. As infants develop, music and song can help reinforce concepts and learning. Toys such as the Leapfrog Musical Table also can give infants as young as 6 months old reinforcement in receptive language skills, vocabulary, pre-literacy, letter recognition, musical intelligence, sequence, color differentiation and memory.
Music is one component in the rich sensory environment that, when coupled with human interaction, boosts infant development. When teachers, parents and others expose infants to diverse situations incorporating textures, colors, tastes, sounds and smells, these experiences create pathways between cells in the brain. These early neural connections are the basis for a child’s eventual learning patterns in school.
If adults encourage infants to participate in musical activities rather than merely receptively listening to them, the greater the impact on the infants’ development. Some of the simplest ways to integrate active musical participation is through clapping, dancing, marching, rolling, rocking, bouncing or other rhythmic movements. For young infants, reading stories with patterned language or bouncing along to a rhyme such as "To Market, To Market," are effective techniques. Another strategy is showing infants songs that incorporate finger play or motions, like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," "This Old Man," "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Hokey Pokey" and "The Wheels on the Bus."
Infants can begin the path to developing more refined gross motor skills by participating in musical activity. While they may not be ready for "Dancing with the Stars," infants may wave hands or shake a rattle to music, gradually developing an understanding of how to keep a steady rhythm and to produce coordinated movement. These early skills will be useful for later learning experiences with counting, patterns and reading. Activities can be as simple as chanting nursery rhymes while clapping on the rhyming words or tapping your foot in time to music.