As one of those moms who started her kids on classical music shortly after birth, I don’t need to be sold on the importance of music, but it’s always nice to have one’s educational priorities validated. Music’s legendary charms don’t just soothe the savage breast; they also stimulate the language centres in the brain, which may not sound as romantic, but it’s perhaps more important in the long run. As Science Daily informs us:

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language. 

That makes perfect sense, music being the universal language after all. Music is also a first language for baby. Though all new mothers certainly talk and coo to their babies, most also spend a great deal of time singing to and for their newborns, or playing recorded music. The lullaby as a genre wouldn’t exist if music didn’t have a significant impact on the infant brain and consciousness.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience.

“Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

I find this rather vindicating, since it’s always been my view that music is not, as some school systems seem to think, “icing” on the educational cake (and therefore expendable when it comes to budget cuts), but foundational to our intellectual (and, I would argue, emotional and spiritual) development.

But back to the study:

As adults, people focus primarily on the meaning of speech. But babies begin by hearing language as “an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance,” Brandt said. “They listen to it not only for its emotional content but also for its rhythmic and phonemic patterns and consistencies. The meaning of words comes later.”

Brandt and his co-authors challenge the prevailing view that music cognition matures more slowly than language cognition and is more difficult. “We show that music and language develop along similar time lines,” he said.

Parents know this from experience: toddlers will sing (particular songs, by title) long before they can talk—often adhering to pitch, melody and rhythm, but the ‘words’ are (unintentionally hilarious) monosyllabic alliterative formations (“bah boh bay” and so forth).

The authors argue that from a musical perspective, speech is a concert of phonemes and syllables. “While music and language may be cognitively and neurally distinct in adults, we suggest that language is simply a subset of music from a child’s view,” Brandt said.

This doesn’t mean that if exposed to music, your tots will be quoting Shakespeare and Milton by time they’re three. However, music can’t hurt their development and will most certainly enhance it. And the research has broader applications.

Brandt said more research on this topic might lead to a better understanding of why music therapy is helpful for people with reading and speech disorders …[and] could also shed light on rehabilitation for people who have suffered a stroke. “Music helps them reacquire language, because that may be how they acquired language in the first place,” Brandt said.


“We conclude that music merits a central place in our understanding of human development.” 

Amen, brother. Now if I can just convince my preteen to stick with piano lessons for a couple more years…

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...