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Music promotes social development in infants

According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, engaging infants with music supports social development by synchronizing caregiver-infant social engagement.

The scientists enrolled 112 infants who were either two or six months old and tracked their eye-movements while listening to a recording of a caregiver singing. The analysis revealed that the rhythm of caregivers’ singing causes infant eye-looking to become synchronized or entrained to the caregivers’ social cues at sub-second timescales.

At two months of age – when infants start to engage with others in an interactive manner – infants were twice more likely to look to the singers’ eyes time-locked to the musical beat, and, by six months of age, when infants are more experienced in face-to-face musical games and are developing rather sophisticated rhythmic and communicative behaviors such as babbling, they were more than four times as likely to look to the singers’ eyes synchronized to the musical beats. 

“Singing to infants seems like such a simple act, but it is full of rich and meaningful social information,” said study lead author Miriam Lense, an assistant professor of Otolaryngology and co-director of the Music Cognition Lab at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). “Here we show that when caregivers sing to their infants, they are intuitively structuring their behavior to support the caregiver-infant social bond and infant social learning.”

The scientists used videos of singing rather than live singing to make sure that any changes in infant looking behavior were due to the infant, and not the caregiver adjusting to the infant. “Infants could look anywhere while watching the videos but we found that their looking behavior was not random,” Lense explained.

“Critically, the predictable rhythm of singing is essential for this entrained social interaction. When we experimentally manipulate the singing so that it no longer has a predictable rhythm, entrainment is disrupted and infants no longer successfully synchronize their eye-looking to the caregivers’ social cues.”

To confirm their findings, the researchers enrolled 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 entrained eye-looking to the original videos, this effect was no longer present when the predictable rhythm had been disrupted.

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

These findings suggest that music is not only about entertainment, but is in fact a core aspect of early socio-emotional development, and highlight the extent to which very young children are sensitive to musical rhythm, as well as the complex ways in which music is intertwined with early social engagement.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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