When I sing my favorite songs to my 8-year-old son, he lovingly tells me, “stop it, Mom.” But there was a time when he would stop everything he was doing and listen to my voice – cuddle and coo as an infant, ask for more as a toddler, or sing along as a preschooler. Now he’s developing an independent sense of music and will immediately pause when his favorite song comes on the radio.
There is something inherently pleasurable about listening to people sing music. When babies listen to their own caregivers sing music they are also practicing early attention and memory skills that will bootstrap language learning. Cultures across the world have created lullabies for babies, and even caregivers’ speech sounds like music. In a study looking at babies’ sustained attention to voices, Drs. Nakata and Trehub at the University of Toronto in Canada recorded mothers speaking and singing to their 6-month-old infants, and later showed these recordings to the infants. The babies were reasonably interested in the maternal speech, but when they heard their moms singing, they stopped fidgeting and stared, mesmerized, at the videos.
Singing captures and maintains attention, even in infancy. It’s no wonder, then, that music is such a great vehicle for carrying information to be remembered. Most of us learned the alphabet set to music. I can only remember the order of the planets by singing “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza [Pies].” A recent study out of the University of Washington showed that even 11-month-old babies remember syllable sequences better when they are sung rather than spoken.
But have you noticed that so many baby toys are instrumental rather than vocal? All of my son’s baby swings and play centers and even “rattles” had colorful buttons he could push that would produce digitized versions of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik “or Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.” Does instrumental music capture attention the same way vocal music does? And do we remember instrumental and vocal music in similar ways?
Researchers are only beginning to study these questions. A group at the University of Toronto looked at memory for vocal (e.g., music sung using “la la la”) versus instrumental music in children ages 5-11 years of age. The children listened to tunes they had never heard in a listening game with a cartoon owl. After a short break, the children were presented with new and “old” tunes (those they had heard during the listening game) and asked if the cartoon owl had played the song before. They found that the 7- to 11-year-old groups of children accurately labeled new and old tunes for the vocal melodies better than the instrumental melodies. The younger 5- to 6-year-olds, however, thought the vocal melodies were “old” whether they were actually old or new. It’s as if vocal melodies were all familiar, even though the children had never heard the new melodies. Overall, this study suggests that we may have a biological response to vocal music that triggers an arousal response and automatic attention. Perhaps listening to vocal melodies triggers a premotor neural response that does not occur while listening to an instrument. In other words, when you hear someone else’s voice, you imagine yourself singing, whereas when you hear an instrument, you do not imagine yourself playing that instrument.
So… singing to your child might engage your child’s attention, strengthen your social-emotional bond and enhance your child’s memory for music. What’s not to love about that? Now all I have to do is figure out how to transfer the shared music experience between mother-son to one of mother-Imagine Dragons-son.
Cognitive psychologist Tonya Bergeson-Dana combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life. Tonya is also a co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, and welcome questions and feedback from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.