Music promotes social development in infants •

According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesengaging infants with musical aids social development synchronizing caregiver and infant social engagement.

The scientists recruited 112 infants aged two or six months and tracked their eye movements while listening to a recording of a carer singing. The analysis revealed that the rhythm of caregivers’ singing causes the infant’s gaze to synchronize or be entrained to caregivers’ social cues at sub-second time scales.

At two months of age – when infants begin to engage with others interactively – infants were twice as likely to watch singers’ eyes locked in time to the musical beat and, at age six months, when infants are more experienced in face-to-face musical play and developing rather sophisticated rhythmic and communicative behaviors like babbling, they were more than four times more likely to look at the eyes of singers synchronized to the musical rhythms.

“Singing for infants seems like such a simple act, but it’s packed with rich and meaningful social information,” said the study’s lead author, Miriam Lense, assistant professor of otolaryngology and co-director of the Music Cognition Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). “Here we show that when caregivers sing to their infants, they intuitively structure their behavior to support caregiver-infant social bonding and infant social learning.”

The scientists used singing videos rather than live singing to ensure that any change in infant appearance behavior was due to the infant and not the caregiver adapting to the infant. “Babies could gaze anywhere while watching the videos, but we found that their gaze behavior was not random,” Lense explained.

“Critically, the predictable rhythm of singing is essential for this driven social interaction. When we experimentally manipulate singing so that it no longer has a predictable rhythm, entrainment is disrupted and infants fail to synchronize their gaze with caregivers’ social cues.

To confirm their findings, the researchers recruited another group of six-month-old infants who watched both the original video and videos that had been manipulated so their rhythms were no longer predictable. While the infants displayed trained gaze in the original videos, this effect was no longer present when the predictable rhythm was disrupted.

“This is important because it reveals a remarkable physical coupling between caregiver behavior and infant experience,” said study lead author Warren Jones, an autism expert at Emory University. “Without awareness, something as simple and intuitive as caregiver singing triggers a whole cascade of behaviors that alter infants’ experiences.”

These findings suggest that music is not just about entertainment, but is actually a central aspect of early social-emotional development, and underscore how sensitive very young children are to musical rhythm, as well as the complex mannerisms whose music is linked to early social engagement.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Personal editor

Joel C. Hicks