NEW YORK – Parents hoping Junior will be the next Mozart, da Vinci or Galileo might help genius blossom by enrolling the little one in baby music classes.
A study published in the July issue of Neuropsychology found a link between verbal memory and musical training in children. This builds on other research showing that early exposure to music improves development and even IQ (search).
With the growing popularity of infant music classes and series like the "Baby Einstein" classical music videos, are today's parents tra-la-laing their way to raising brighter kids?
Stay-at-home mom Elizabeth Frogel of New York City is convinced music is the reason for her 6-month-old daughter's early chattiness: Ava was sounding consonants at 5 months, before any of Frogel's friends' children.
Music lover Frogel read studies about the effects of music on learning. So, during her pregnancy, she wore a belt-like contraption called the BabyPlus system (search), which plays beats the fetus can rock to in utero.
Since Ava was born, melody and rhythm have shaped her life, according to Frogel. She and her husband sing to the baby, take her to music classes and give her toy drums, cymbals and maracas (search).
"For us, it's been a huge part of her development. This really encouraged her talking," Frogel, 36, said of her daughter's early baby sounds.
In the Neuropsychology study, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined the brains of 90 boys aged 6 to 15. Half had music training on string and other Western musical instruments; half had none.
The researchers found that those with training had better verbal memories and scored higher on verbal memory tests than their schoolmates without training.
"The value of the paper is really to help us think about how we educate our children," said lead researcher Agnes S. Chan. "If we know what type of experience will affect the brain and in turn, cognitive development, then educational programs can be designed in a smarter way."
The study also found verbal memory improved with length of time of the music lessons. There were no differences in visual memory or academic performance between the groups.
Working mother Julie Leitner of Seattle tuned into such research early. She and her husband played classical CDs while she was pregnant because "all these studies showed music is good for development."
Her daughter Annie, now 1, has been captivated by the Baby Einstein videos since she was 4 months old, and sometimes the videos are the only thing that soothes her, Leitner said.
But other parents are skeptical that there's a direct connection between music and brain power. Deborah Miller's 1- and 3-year-old daughters love the Baby Einstein tapes, but she isn't sure the background sonatas and fugues are improving her girls' development.
"I'm not convinced it's going to make my child smarter," said Miller, 28, of West Milford, N.J. "It's hard to tell whether it's just that the type of parent who does this stuff also stimulates them in other ways."
Psychologists and scientists are sounding discordant notes on the issue, too.
"It's a very controversial area," said John Colombo, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies early childhood cognitive and perceptual development. "A number of people are making fairly remarkable claims about exposing children early in life to musical stimuli and musical training and what effects that might have on the brain."
Colombo said the studies haven't persuaded all scientists of a definite link between music and memory or other abilities.
"Some are buying into it, others are not," he said. "As far as proving that music per se has these effects, I don't think we're there yet."
But Chan's research found physical differences in the brains of the two sets of children studied: The musical boys had larger left temporal regions (which handle verbal ability) than the non-musical ones.
And organizations like the Center for Music and Young Children, which runs the national "Music Together" classes for babies and preschoolers, sing the praises of music's influence on development.
Frogel's daughter has taken several of the classes, and New York mom Genevieve Monsma just enrolled her 6-month-old Heath because he already seems to have the music in him.
"If he's bored or crabby and nothing is pacifying him and we start singing, he smiles and laughs," said Monsma, 31. "It focuses him. He doesn't understand words, but he remembers a song."