Adding music to your baby's playtime may potentially sharpen their language skills and ability to process musical rhythms, a first-of-a-kind study revealed.

Researchers from the University of Washington discovered that incorporating music into a series of play sessions boosted 9-month-old babies' brain processing of speech and music.

In the study, babies and their parents listened to several renditions of the waltz -- which is a difficult rhythm for babies to comprehend -- and tapped out beats together on toy drums or with their feet.

Nineteen babies were part of the control group, while 20 babies listened to songs in triple meter for 15 minutes. After a week, the babies underwent brain scans.

Lead researcher Patricia Kuhl said the main goal of the study was to see whether babies' experience with music would train a broader cognitive skill such as pattern recognition. Their findings suggest that it does, she said.

The research team found that the babies listening to the waltz learned its tempo. When the tempo was changed, the babies immediately noticed.

Christina Zhao, another researcher from the study, said that the babies' brains displayed a specific response which indicated that they could detect the interruption.

Kuhl and her colleagues explain that like music, language also has rhythmic patterns, as the timing of the syllables can differentiate one speech sound from another to understand what a person is saying. This ability to distinguish speech sounds helps babies learn to talk.

Babies experience a complex world in which sensations, sounds and lights vary constantly, Kuhl said. Babies have to recognize the pattern of activity and, in their own way, predict what's going to happen next.

One example is when we hear someone speak, or hear a door slam. Kuhl said these can trigger our brain's cognitive pattern detectors and set them into action: each word or sound gives a clue to the next one. A door closing could make us expect footsteps.

"When you learn to recognize auditory patterns, you can predict future sounds," said Kuhl, adding that this is helpful to speech and music.

One issue, however, is that researchers were not sure whether the effects of exposure to music were long-term. In the meantime, Kuhl and her colleagues are investigating whether musical experience at 9 months old led to benefits in the language development of study participants, who are now 2 years old.

The findings of the new study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 25.

Photo: Stevan Sheets | Flickr

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