My daughter is 2,5 years old and during play she either: asks a lot of questions, invites me and others to play with her, or is nervous and cries. In other words, she spends very few moments playing by herself without looking for some input from me or someone else. This can be very infuriating when you have something else to do (like housework or packing for a trip) or you are just in a bad mood.
When she was a baby (and she was a very fussy baby too) I used to sing to her during the day and also when I tried to put her to sleep. And that did help me but not nearly as much as I wanted. I never really tried to play some music in the background to see if that would calm her down. But last week, I decided to put on some music she likes. (This music is actually from cartoons but I connected the speakers to my tablet and hid the tablet.) I was amazed that even when she lost interest in the music, she continued to play by herself and was much more successful with some games she usually engages in (like puzzles). In fact, she asked for almost no input for an hour or longer. This was unprecedented and previously considered impossible in our household. I immediately purchased some MP3 player for children and I can attest that even when you put on some “adult” music she is much calmer.
I just tried to find out if there is any research related to this issue. I found one article which was published very recently and states that children stay calm two times longer if you play them unknown song in foreign language then they would if you just spoke to them. (The article points to this research paper). This is pretty much in accordance to what I witnessed. Although I must stress again that music didn’t help me that much when my daughter was a baby younger then one year. Maybe I was just singing wrong songs to her.
Author of the research says “Emotional self-control is obviously not developed in infants, and we believe singing helps babies and children develop this capacity.” But wait, why would it be the case that singing helps brain develop? All we know is that music somehow calms children down. Weather it helps them develop is a something different altogether.
Emotional self-control is definitely not developed in infants but it often seems to me that distractions like music do just that: distract them. They move away their attention from anxiety/nervousness by occupying their brain power with something apparently very seducing (like music). This is related to the concept of modularity of the mind and the fact that many things compete for our attention.
Similarly, when you give a newborn (one or two months old) a pacifier I often have a feeling that this activity (sucking) paralyses the rest of their brain and consumes them completely which in effect calms them down. Sucking is an instinct which is so strong in the first months of their lives that it can out-shadow everything else.