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Prenatal Music Development & Impact of Music on Learning

  • Apr 19, 2010
  • Cheryl Henningsgaard-MS, BMT, MT-BC, ECSE & PreK Early Childhood Educator

The connection between music and literacy begins before birth. As a fetus we are created and sustained through the natural rhythms of the maternal heart. At birth, new borns not only have a preference for their native birth language, but also the maternal voice. Call it a survival mechanism, but humans are wired for sound and rhythm. We are musical human beings, the basis for our ability to learn language, as we have learned music prenatally. Elements of literacy are found through music: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. These are all found in listening and participating to musical activities! We can use these innate preferences and abilities to enhance language development.

At birth, we have a preference for steady beat and can differentiate patterns and pitch. The newborn responds greater to parentese voicing (when caregivers speak in a high-pitched voice), and also respond to rocking movement, as they learned from their early days of creation. By birth, we respond to music as it helps us to soothe, and connect in an emotional way to our caregivers. Phenomena of this are lullabies, rhythmic love songs that caregivers sing with their newborn. We will dedicate several blogs to lullabies and how effective they can be in early language development.

Every culture has unique lullabies that are a transmission of caretaking, a way to communicate to the child that they are loved. The infant hears the lullaby and feels the rocking, cradling movement and is soothed and lulled to sleep. And the caregiver feels strong emotion singing the lullaby to their new little loved one, especially as their song soothes the child to sleep.   Music communicates feelings. Music communicates love. Infants learn to differentiate pitch from environmental sounds that have meaning in their world. As the infant grows, so do listening experiences that shape the auditory senses. We will dedicate several blogs that will have an emphasis on the social-emotional impact of music.

As young children, we learn our A B C’s by singing them in route, before reading or writing. We use this melody to learn other lyrics to songs such as, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, or “Baa, Baa Black Sheep”. Using a familiar melody as a vehicle for more learning is scaffolding the old to learn new material. Cognitive learning theories based on Piaget and Vygotskian philosophy. Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of y0ung children, advocate singing to young children at birth to enhance development in all areas of learning and as avenues for language development.   Music therapists use music as a teaching tool to facilitate learning, as music uses the entire brain making it easier for the youngest to attend and learn.

Daniel Levitin writes in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, “It appears that even prenatally, music is encoded in our memory.” So profound is our learning with music that this later generalizes to enhance patterns found in math and language. 

We recognize the importance of early childhood music education at MacPhail Center for Music, by offering classes that begin our youngest students at six weeks of age! This class is called “Baby and Me” and includes a language- and music-rich environment where babies and their caregivers learn about and experience sound through different learning modalities. Caregivers learn weekly lullabies and develop a home music time and also songs that they can use throughout the day to ease transitions and teach new skills. Steady beat patterns and sound discrimination is a core component of this curriculum. Creative movement, instrument exploration, cause and effect, and object permanence are also components of the class.

Teaching Tips: Baby & Me Time can be implemented at your library. You could call it, “Baby & Me Read Together” and incorporate nursery rhymes, lullabies, and movement to music and word activities that promote musical play along with language development. Listening to music could be a part of this time as listening is a core component to literacy. Rhythm and rhyme activities facilitate another building block to literacy, phonological awareness.


Next Blog we will share a “Baby & Me Read Together “lesson that you can use at your library!


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