Serenading the baby brain

Babies enjoying music seems like a simple, natural thing. But under the surface there are complex inner workings that can give us insights into musical development.

Illustration by Mary Parker

Illustration by Mary Parker

Music activities — listening, singing, playing or dancing — deliver positive effects in our lives in the cognitive, social and personal domains, as well as influence our early childhood development. It is perhaps not so surprising that our music sensitivity is present in infancy; in the modern era, children are almost constantly accompanied by musical input from their surroundings. Along with played music, parent-infant interactions and communications are often song-like, associated with attention-grabbing shifts in tempo and affective melodic intonations.

Recent research has begun to look at the effects of music across cognitive fields in early development. Now it appears that an infant’s exposure to music may be as important as their exposure to language. However, at least some parts of our music sensitivity and discrimination ability may well be innate. So how does exposure change infants’ musical taste and expertise? To understand this question, it is important to distinguish between two concepts: music discrimination (how music is perceived) and music appreciation (our personal taste in music).

Music discrimination

It’s often said that the drummer holds the band together. This is because one of the most important elements across all types of music is the beat. Many believe music originates from humans’ ability to detect beat, a regular pulse in an auditory signal. Newborn infants’ brains can identify beat disruptions, suggesting that human beat induction and perception is innate.

Amazingly, infants are able to form memories of music even before birth. After being exposed to a short melody in the last weeks of gestation, young infants showed heart rate changes six weeks after birth when they were presented with the same melody. These changes indicated recognition of the old piece of music they heard in the womb. There were no changes when other non-familiar melodies were played.

At six months, infants are able to recall the surface characteristics of a melody that they were familiarised with a week before, such as the specific tempo (the speed) and timbre (the tone quality). However, their musical memory is not without limit. When experimenters adjust the tempo or timbre of the original music to a certain level, infants appear to be treating the adjusted music as if it is new information. This means that young infants may have difficulty recognising some of the structural features of a musical piece.

Six month old babies can remember surface characteristics of music, such as the tempo, after one week.  Paco/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Six month old babies can remember surface characteristics of music, such as the tempo, after one week. Paco/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Music appreciation

Music can bring us smiles and tears. The two aspects involved in this are the perception of music emotion, and our liking for particular music — otherwise known as music appreciation. Not only can infants distinguish between and remember different pieces of music, but their music appreciation appears to be, once again, somewhat innate.

Part of the power of music is the range of emotions that it can express. Children are exposed to musical emotions in a number of ways. For example, parents sing affectively to their infants. Even the way parents speak to their children (infant-directed speech) is often song-like. These experiences may guide infants’ preferences. Indeed, they prefer infant-directed, affective speech over speech without emotions. They also prefer their own mothers’ singing to speech, perhaps because such singing is more engaging.

Interestingly, our ability to express and recognise basic emotions conveyed in music tends to be universal. One study showed that African listeners have no difficulty recognising happy, sad and fearful emotions expressed in Western music irrespective of their own musical culture. The findings illustrate human capacity to detect the cues embedded in melodies that carry musical emotions. It also demonstrates the functioning of our neural system dealing with the processing of emotions that allows us to appreciate music.

The other aspect of music appreciation is our liking for one certain type of music over another. Consonance in music refers to a harmonious and pleasant perception facilitated by constant structural regularities, whereas dissonant music is clashing sounds that lack harmony and regularity. Preverbal human infants, including newborns with normal hearing born to deaf parents, show a preference for consonant chords and music. The preference for consonant sounds is independent of infants’ specific prenatal or postnatal experiences, suggesting that infants possess a biological preparedness that makes consonance perceptually more attractive.

Infants prefer consonant music regardless of previous experience, suggesting this preference is innate.   Philippe Put/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Infants prefer consonant music regardless of previous experience, suggesting this preference is innate. Philippe Put/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Cross-species findings add evidence to the evolutionary origins of musical appreciation. Cotton-top tamarins, another primate species, do not prefer consonant chords over dissonant ones. Nevertheless, a baby chimpanzee, a primate species phylogenetically closer to humans than tamarins, exhibits a musical preferential pattern similar to that of humans.

Although some elements of music can be detected across different cultures, daily exposure to a particular music system will have an influence on the type of music infants enjoy. This is due to the creation of culture-specific brain structures and representations. Essentially, an infant exposed to Western music conventions will show preference for Western music.

There are, however, some questions that require further research. An infant’s attention to a musical piece does not necessarily mean that she is enjoying it. Neural studies may answer questions about how much infants prefer and enjoy each type and element of music, and how much the enjoyment is related to their previous musical experience. Regardless of the unknown, the good news is that researchers are starting to seriously consider what elements of music babies might actually enjoy: a song has recently been composed in collaboration with singer/songwriter Imogen Heap, specially designed to make your baby happy.

Music perception and early speech

Of course, music is not the only sound that babies are exposed to. Speech is the vocalised form of communication carried by sounds that form meanings. Both language and music play an important role in a child’s development. As early as three months after birth, brain scans of infants show that certain parts of the brain work specifically to process language and music: music is processed predominantly in the right hemisphere and speech in the left.

However, this separation in the brain between speech and music perception is just half of the picture. There is evidence showing interaction between sounds from the two domains. Although they have distinct neural processing patterns, some of this processing may overlap for language and music. This implies that our expertise in processing one type of sound could transfer into helping us process the other.

Similar developmental underpinnings in both domains suggest that specific processing patterns for speech or music may emerge in a gradual fashion. This means that development of language and music actually goes hand in hand. For example, it has been shown that musical training sharpens our processing of speech cues.

Musical training may help with language development.   MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Musical training may help with language development. MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


This also works in reverse: speakers of a tone language, whereby word meanings differ by changes in pitch, are better at music perception. Recent infant research reports that there are benefits to music perception based on language experiences. Bilingual infants are more sensitive than their monolingual peers in musical and linguistic pitch perception. This means an infant may benefit from that parallel exposure to language and music as they develop.

Future research

Society’s understanding of music’s role in child development — how it filters through our ears and is processed by our brain — can help us better comprehend music and its wide-ranging functions. More research on music in infancy may further our understanding of the interaction between music and other cognitive domains. This will help researchers develop programs to promote not only children’s music sensitivity but also their general cognitive abilities.

As always, there are other avenues to investigate. Researchers can explore how much musical exposure is needed to form a preference for a specific musical style, study the long-term impact of consistent music exposure along the developmental trajectory, and examine the effect of musical exposure on child temperament. From this, researchers may develop more effective musical exposure and build a joyful childhood for future generations.

Edited by Deborah Kane