Researchers compared language perception between Japanese and American infants. They investigated the ability of these infants to distinguish between the sounds of R and L. (R and L are both used in English, but there is no L sound in the Japanese language, only R.) They found that at six months of age English and Japanese infants could equally distinguish between R and L sounds. By 12 months, the Japanese children had lost the ability to distinguish the difference between R and L sounds. Meanwhile, at 12 months, the American children had become better at hearing the difference between the two sounds.
How does this relate to music? This study exemplifies how quickly and dramatically the human brain is developing during the first year of life. During the first six months the brain is receptive to all sounds. By the second six months the brain is already prioritizing: discarding the ability to distinguish sounds that are not part of its environment, and reinforcing the ability to distinguish sounds that it hears regularly.
Since music and language are both sound based, one could hypothesize that a similar process occurs with music. Exposure to a wide variety of musical sounds and adequate repetition of those sounds between the ages of six and twelve months may have a lasting impact on the brain’s ability to perceive those sounds. Lack of musical stimulation during this sensitive time may make it more challenging for the brain to understand musical sounds in the future.
The Secret Life of The Brain. Richard Restak, M.D. The Dana Press and Joseph Henry Press, 2001